Fanon and Mariátegui contra Grosfoguel and Coulthard


Although Ramón Grosfoguel et al. certainly take pride in the fact they draw from native resources, and hence do not rely on master thinkers from the Occident, it is unlikely that anyone not steeped in that tradition could even begin to understand their “decolonial” theory. On this point, Walter D. Mignolo brings up the necessity of acts he refers to as “epistemic disobedience”: “Decolonial thinking presupposes de-linking (epistemically and politically) from the web of imperial knowledge.” The concept of de-linking is adapted from Samir Amin’s 1988 book on Eurocentrism. Loren Goldner explains that “de-linking is a fancy name for an idea first developed by Iosif Stalin called ‘socialism in one country’.” Grosfoguel indicates in an article about “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn” that his main points are

  1. that a decolonial epistemic perspective requires a much broader canon of thought than simply the Western canon (including the Left Western canon);
  2. that a truly universal decolonial perspective thus cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that raises itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of the critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as oppose to a universal world;
  3. that decolonization of knowledge would require to take seriously the epistemic perspective/cosmologies/insights of critical thinkers from the Global South thinking from and with subalternized racial/ethnic/sexual spaces and bodies.

Postmodernism and postructuralism as epistemological projects are caught in the Western canon, reproducing within its domains of thought and practice a coloniality of power/knowledge.

He even goes so far as to call for a “decolonization of postcolonial studies,” which is still far too reliant on the authority of Western thinkers. In an article of the same title, Grosfoguel recalls that “as a Latino in the United States, I was dissatisfied with the epistemic consequences of the knowledge produced by [the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group]. They underestimated in their own work ethnic or racial perspectives coming from the region, while at the same time privileging predominantly to Western thinkers, which is related to my second point: they gave epistemic privilege to what they called the ‘four horses of the apocalypse,’ that is, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, and Guha… Among the four main thinkers they privilege, three are ‘Eurocentric’ thinkers… Two (i.e., Derrida and Foucault) form part of the poststructuralist/postmodern Western canon. Only one (i.e., Rinajit Guha) is a thinker thinking from the South. By privileging Western thinkers as their central theoretical apparatus, they betrayed their goal to produce subaltern studies.” Mignolo writes in a similar vein that

Coloniality and decoloniality introduces a fracture with both the Eurocentered project of postmodernity and a project of postcoloniality heavily dependent on poststructuralism (i.e., insofar as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have been acknowledged as the grounding of the postcolonial canon): Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha… Decoloniality sets out from other sources. From the decolonial shift already implicit in Nueva corónica and buen gobierno by Waman Puma de Ayala; in the decolonial critique and the activism of Mahatma Gandhi; in the fracture of Marxism in its encounter with colonial legacies in the Andes, articulated by José Carlos Mariátegui; and in the radical political and epistemological shifts enacted by Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, among others. The decolonial shift, in other words, is a project of de-linking whereas postcolonial theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy.

Yet the palpable irony here is — even if Grosfoguel gets rid of the names Derrida, Gramsci, and Foucault while retaining only Guha, or if Mignolo jettisons Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida but holds on to Bhabha — they will still be working within this philosophical idiom, which they just disavowed. Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with the intrinsic “greatness” of European civilization or its unique “genius.” Rather, it has to do with an historic form of universality which happened to develop in Europe and expanded outward from there. Decolonial theorists tend to be dissatisfied with this version of events, though. Marx himself is not spared from the rebuke of “Eurocentrism,” as Mignolo observes: “Class consciousness means a ‘critical consciousness,’ which like the one generated by colonial difference and the colonial wound (e.g., critical border thinking), generates, in the first case, projects of emancipation and, in the second, projects of liberation. However, in Marx and in the Marxist tradition, the idea of ‘class consciousness’ hides the fact that the paradigmatic model of the proletarian is white, male, European…” (“On Subalterns and Other Agencies”).

Grosfoguel takes this a step further. Unlike many of his decolonial peers, he never had much affection for Marx. Quijano, by contrast, considers himself a Marxist to this day, and Dussel’s readings of Marx are both subtle and wide-ranging. None of this is present in Grosfoguel. “In social science we have concrete manifestations of epistemic Islamophobia in the work of Western-centric patriarchal theorists such as Karl Marx and Max Weber,” he maintains. “Marx believed that secularism was fundamental for revolution to have a chance in Muslim lands. This secularist view of Marx was a typical colonial strategy promoted by Western empires in order to destroy the ways of thinking and living of the colonial subjects and, thus, impede any trace of resistance.” Elsewhere Grosfoguel continues: “Just like the Western thinkers preceding him, Marx participates in an epistemic racism in which there is only one epistemology with access to universality: the Western tradition… Despite being from the left, Marxist thought ended up trapped in the same problems of Eurocentrism and colonialism that had imprisoned Eurocentered thinkers of the right.”

Contrast the postcolonial particularism of someone like Grosfoguel with the Marxian universalism of someone like Mariátegui. Some misconceptions should be dispelled immediately before proceeding any further, on the topic of Mariátegui’s heterodoxy. For even his countryman Quijano writes: “A Marxist, considered today perhaps the greatest Latin American Marxist, Mariátegui was at the same time not a Marxist. He openly believed in God…” Michael Löwy has made a similar claim. It’s inaccurate, however, all the same. While Mariátegui initially wanted to enter the clergy, raised in a religious household, he distanced himself from Catholicism without feeling a need to desecrate or disrespect it. The essay he dedicated to “the religious factor” in his collection on Peruvian Reality is incredulous, yet appreciative. Like his fellow Marxists, Mariátegui suspected the reason radical anticlericalism failed was that it was divorced from material conditions: “Radical or ‘Gonzalez-Pradist’ protests lacked effectiveness because it offered no social and economic program.” On the role of “myth” in revolution, Mariátegui was more Sorelian than most.

László Moholy-Nagy, Erde und Himmel (1922)

László Moholy-Nagy, Zwischen Himmel und Erde: Hinter Gottes Rücken (1923)

By and large, however, he was rather “orthodox” in terms of his internationalism. This overarching commitment to world revolution is probably what led Mariátegui to join Trotsky’s Left Opposition at the end of the twenties. And Mariátegui was unequivocal about the basis of international communism in what Marx had described as “the civilizing effects” of capitalist modernity. Marx spoke of “the great civilizing influence of capital… i.e., its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity…” Earlier, in the Grundrisse, he’d stated: “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life.” Still earlier, in the Manifesto, he and Engels wrote that all parochial relations brought into capital’s fold are swiftly dissolved or else irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, thus introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Lenin had likewise stressed the twin birth of nationalism alongside internationalism in capitalist development. “Developing capitalism knows two historical tendencies in the national question,” he wrote in a 1913 tract against the Bundists. “The first is the awakening of national life and national movements, as well as struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of national states; the second is the development and growing frequency of international intercourse in every form, the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of the international unity of capital… of economic life in general, of politics, science, and so on. What is left of capitalism’s progressive nature is its world-historical tendency, to break down national barriers, obliterate national distinctions, and to assimilate nations — a tendency which manifests itself more and more with every passing decade, which is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism.” In a pamphlet written that same year, Lenin states: “Our banner does not carry the slogan ‘national culture’ but international culture, one which unites all the nations in a higher, socialist unity, and the way to which is already being paved by the international amalgamation of capital.”

Mariátegui concurs:

Internationalism is not a brand new current. For roughly a century or so now in European civilization one notes the tendency to develop an international organization of humanity. Nor is internationalism necessarily a revolutionary current. There is a socialist internationalism and a bourgeois internationalism, and this is neither absurd nor contradictory. When it finds its historical origin, internationalism is a result of emanation, a consequence of liberal ideas. The first major incubator of international organisms was the Manchester school. The liberal state emancipated industry and trade from feudal and absolutist barriers. Capitalist interests developed independently from the growth of the nation. The nation, finally, could no longer contain them within its borders. Capital is denationalized; industry began to conquer foreign markets; goods do not know boundaries and strive to move freely across all countries. The bourgeoisie becomes in favor of free trade. Free trade, both as an idea and as practice, was a real step toward internationalism in which the proletariat will recognize one of its desired ends, one of its ideals. Economic borders are thus weakened. This event strengthened the hope of a day to come when political borders no longer exist.

Accusations of “Eurocentrism” do not seem like they would bother Mariátegui all that much, either:

Socialism is certainly not an Indo-American doctrine. But no such doctrine, no contemporary system is or could be. And although socialism, like capitalism, may have been born in Europe, it is not specifically or particularly European. It is a worldwide movement, in which none of the countries that move within the orbit of Western civilization are excluded. This civilization drives towards universality with forces and means which no previous civilization possessed. Indo-America can and should have individuality and style in this new world order, but not its own culture or fate that is unique. One hundred years ago, we owed our independence as nations completely to the rhythm of Western history, whose compass has inexorably moved us since colonization… Liberty, Democracy, Parliament, Sovereignty of the People — all the great words men of that time pronounced, came from the European repertoire. History does not measure the greatness of such men for the originality of their ideas, however, but for the efficacy and genius with which they served them.

Yet again, Mariátegui here sees Europe as central to the fate of all humanity:

The fate of all the workers of the world is in play in the European crisis. The development of the crisis ought to be of equal interest to workers of Peru and workers of the Far East. The crisis has Europe as the principal theater, but the crisis of European institutions is at the same time the crisis of institutions of Western civilization. And Peru, like other countries of the Americas, revolves inside the orbit of this civilization — not only because politically independent countries are being dealt with, but also because they are still economically colonized through their links to British, American, and French capitalism, and because both our culture and the types of institution are European. And now, precisely these democratic institutions — this culture, which we copied from Europe — come from a place that is now in a period of definitive, even total, crisis. Above all, capitalist civilization has historically internationalized the life of humanity; it has created the material connections among all peoples that establish an inevitable solidarity among them. Internationalism is not an idea, but a reality. Progress makes interests, ideas, customs, the people’s regimes unify and merge. Peru, like the other countries of the Americas, is not, then, outside the crisis, it is inside it. The world crisis has already had repercussions on these countries. And it will, of course, continue to do so. So a period of conservative reaction in Europe will likewise be a period of reaction in the Americas, and a period of revolution in Europe likewise will be a period of revolution in the Americas. More than a century ago, the life of humanity was not as linked as it is today, when today’s communication media did not exist, when the nations did not have the immediate, constant contact they have today. When there was no press, back when we were still distant spectators of European events, the French Revolution provided the origin for our own War of Independence and the creation of all these republics. Remembering this is enough for us to realize the rapidity with which the transformation of society is reflected in Latin American societies. Those who say that Peru, and Latin America in general, so far from the European revolution, have no idea of contemporary life, nor do they have even an approximate understanding of history. These people are surprised that the most advanced ideas in Europe make their way to Peru; but they are not surprised, on the other hand, at the airplane, the transatlantic ocean liner, the wireless telegraph, the radio — in sum, all the most advanced expressions of material progress in Europe.

Or at least it was central at that time. Today it might rather be the United States, Europe, and some East Asian countries. It would be folly to reject tout court, in any case, all that is deemed “Western” by dint of its origin in Europe or lands settled by Europeans. (Marx and Hegel — those hopeless Eurocentrists — would doubtless have referred contemptuously to such a facile procedure as an “abstract negation”). But this is nevertheless exactly what we find in essays like “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” whose authors, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, insist that this term doesn’t mean “converting Indigenous politics to a Western idea of liberation… Decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life…” Repatriation? Forgive my Occidental naïveté, but this seems quite backwards-looking, especially if decolonization is to be understood “as a process [which] would repatriate land to Indigenous peoples, reversing the timeline.” Communism may seem a bit old-fashioned to the cutting-edge theoreticians of decoloniality, but its program is far more profound, precluding any talk of repatriation or a patria grande… Patriotism, like patriarchy, will be abolished once and for all in the borderless world to come, a world without fatherlands or claims to ownership based on ancestry.

Not only is Mariátegui better than his self-styled inheritors; Fanon is as well: “Disalienation will be for those whites and blacks who’ve refused to let themselves be locked in the substantialized ‘tower of the past.’ For many other black men disalienation will come from refusing to consider their reality as definitive…In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future.” He asks in frustration: “What am I supposed to do with a black empire?…I am French… I am interested in French culture, French civilization, and the French,” “[all] I wanted…[was] to be a man among men.” After all, “I should like nothing better” than to drown in “the white flood composed of men like Sartre and Aragon…” since, as a man, “the Peloponnesian War is just as much mine as the invention of the compass.”

I am a man, and I have to rework the world’s past from the very beginning. I am not just responsible for the slave revolt in Saint Domingue. Every time a man has brought victory to the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to attempt to enslave his fellow man, I have felt a sense of solidarity with his act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color. I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.

For many black intellectuals, European civilization possesses a characteristic of exteriority. Furthermore, in human relationships, the western world can feel foreign to a black man. Not wanting to be thought a poor relation, an adopted son, or a bastard child, must he feverishly try to discover a black civilization?

Let there be no misunderstanding. We are convinced it would be of enormous interest to discover a black literature, or architecture, from the third century before Christ. We’d be overjoyed to learn of the existence of a correspondence between some black philosopher and Plato. But we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year-old kids who are working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe.

There should be no attempt to fixate man, since it is his destiny which is to be unleashed… The density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom.

The misfortune of the man of color is to have been enslaved… The misfortune and inhumanity of the white man are having killed man somewhere. And still today they are organizing this dehumanization rationally. But insofar as I have the possibility of existing absolutely, I have not the right to confine myself in a world of retroactive reparations.

Fanon’s words here remain to this day unsurpassed, particularly in the field of “decolonial” theory. Much of this owes to the fact that Fanon is making an argument diametrically opposed to the one set forth by contemporary theorists of rooted identity or indigeneity or whatnot. Glen Sean Coulthard undertakes a nearly impossible task when he titles his book Red Skin, White Masks — there’s no way it can live up to the original. Though Coulthard competently unpacks the insights and implications of Fanon’s 1952 text, mobilizing them against the “politics of recognition” advocated by Charles Taylor, it starts to unravel as soon as Coulthard departs from the dialectical orientation Fanon had toward history: “Indigenous contributions to anticolonial thought and practice have for the most part been very underappreciated for their transformative value and insights. Even Fanon saw the decolonial possibilities of indigenous cultural politics as fundamentally undercut by its ressentiment-directed orientation toward the past. ‘We shouldn’t be content to delve into a people’s past to find concrete examples to counter colonialism’s endeavor to distort or depreciate,’ Fanon counsels in Wretched of the Earth. ‘Colonialism will never be put to shame just by exhibiting unknown cultural treasures under its nose.’ Here we reach a limit to Fanon’s anticolonial analysis, especially when applied to the settler-colonial dynamics which inform our current circumstances. Although Fanon eschews an evolutionary anthropological theory of development in which societies are viewed as developing along a linear path from primitive to civilized, he remains wedded to a dialectical notion of social transformation that privileges the ‘new’ over the ‘old’,” and so on. Perhaps Coulthard’s waiting for George Ciccariello-Maher to “decolonize” dialectics, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Until that happens, he is stuck promoting “a resurgent affirmation of indigenous difference” — “ethicopolitical practices of indigenous resurgence as a form of ‘self-conscious traditionalism’.”

Such traditionalism would have been anathema to Fanon, as Peter Hudis explains in his excellent study of the Martinican philosopher-firebrand, subtitled Philosopher of the Barricades (2015). Atavistic tendencies ran entirely counter to what he stood for. “Fanon was never the slightest bit interested in an Islamic state or defining the movement along Islamic lines,” writes Hudis, “not just because he was a confirmed atheist. He wanted the independence struggle to serve as a conduit to the creation of a new kind of person, a new humanity. Not a reversion to tribal identities, traditional practices, and religious obscuranticism.” Citing Fanon’s 1956 encounter with the French Trotskyists Jean Ayme and Pierre Broué, Hudis goes on to demonstrate how Fanon exposed the romantic logic behind such atavism in his address on “Racism and Culture”:

Rediscovering tradition, and living it as a defense mechanism, as a symbol of purity, of salvation, the decultured individual leaves the impression that the mediation takes its revenge by substantializing itself… Falling back on archaic positions which have no relation to technical development is paradoxical. The institutions thus valorized no longer correspond to the elaborate methods of action already mastered… The culture put into capsules, which has vegetated since the foreign domination, is revalorized… It is not reconceived or grasped anew, dynamized from within — it is shouted.

And this headlong, unstructured, verbal revalorization conceals a paradoxical attitude. It’s at just this point that the incorrigible character of the inferiorized is brought out for mention. Arab doctors sleep on the ground, spit all over the place, etc. Negro intellectuals consult a sorcerer before making a decision, etc. “Collaborating” intellectuals now try to justify their new attitude. The customs, traditions, and beliefs formerly denied and passed over in silence are violently valorized and affirmed. Tradition is no longer scoffed at by the group, and the group no longer runs away from itself. A sense of the past is rediscovered, the worship of ancestors resumed…

In Hudis’ estimation Fanon was exceptionally clear-sighted when it came to discerning the “the dangers of political Islam.” Soon after he arrived in Algiers, he recognized the threat it posed to nascent revolutionary movements. “There is no evidence whatsoever that Fanon entertained the idea of making alliances with political Islam or held there were tendencies within Islamic fundamentalism that should be sought out as potential allies against imperialism… This does not mean he dismisses out of hand ‘a cultural phenomenon commonly known as the awakening of Islam.’ Reminding others of the contributions of religious heritage is not inherently regressive. What is regressive is when this enters into the terrain of political struggle through an unabashed embrace of the ‘traditional.’ The revival of atavistic tribal and religious identities is a function of the breakdown of the revolution: i.e., its impending failure and not its potential resurrection.” Again Hudis quotes from Wretched of the Earth (1961), where Fanon already observed that “religion divides people within the same nation and sets the spiritual communities, fostered and encouraged by colonialism and its apparatus, at odds with each other… Unexpected events break out here and there. In predominantly Catholic or Protestant countries the Muslim minority redoubles its religious fervor… Muslim festivals are revived; Islam defends itself every inch of the way.” Fanon’s skepticism about the promise of Islamist politics is spelled out in a letter to his admirer, Ali Shariati:

Even if I do not share your views with respect to Islam, I respect your view that in the Third World — and if you don’t mind, I would prefer to say in the Near and Middle East — Islam, more so than any other social and ideological force, has had an anti-colonialist capacity and an anti-Western nature. I hope that your intellectuals will be able to instill life in the inert and drugged body of the Muslim East so as to raise the consciousness of the people… in order to found a different kind of man and a different kind of civilization. I, for one, fear that revitalizing a spirit of sectarianism or religion may result in setbacks for a nation engaged in the process of becoming, insofar as it distances itself from its future and immobilizes itself it in its past.

Later, after he supported the nationalist uprising in Algeria, Fanon would express his deep misgivings: “My leftist leanings drove me to embrace the same goal as Muslim nationalists. Yet I was all too conscious of the different roads by which we’d reached the same aspiration. Independence, yes, I agreed… But what independence? Were we going to fight to build a feudal, theocratic Muslim state in Algeria frowned on by foreigners?” At least in this regard, despite his capitulation to nationalism, Fanon remains superior to many of the “decolonial” theorists who idolize him. Coulthard fares better, to be sure, than Grosfoguel. Still, he falls well short of the high bar set by Fanon in rejecting traditionalism.

That’s enough for now, however, as I’ve just been informed that the noted decolonial critic and Bolivarian George Ciccariello-Maher is calling for some sort of “transcendental decolonization” (i.e., a “decolonization from without”) of Frankfurt School critical theory. I will be busy hate-reading that over the weekend (in all likelihood), but promise to report back later.

Note: Regarding the term “hate-reading,” it is not really meant as something malicious. All it means is to read something you know you probably will not agree with, yet feel drawn to out of morbid curiosity. Like, say, watching the Democratic National Convention, for example. I will never understand why anyone would watch that steaming heap of shit. Unless they were “hate-watching” it.

6 thoughts on “Fanon and Mariátegui contra Grosfoguel and Coulthard

  1. Pingback: Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality | The Charnel-House

  2. There is no one like Fanon in awakening a young black man to awareness. I used to give it a lot to my students At Community College of Philadelphia who were into drugs, on probation, etc. When it connected with them, there was a change in their thinking.

  3. Just want to point out that your wonderful quote:

    Fanon would express his deep misgivings: “My leftist leanings drove me to embrace the same goal as Muslim nationalists. Yet I was all too conscious of the different roads by which we’d reached the same aspiration. Independence, yes, I agreed… But what independence? Were we going to fight to build a feudal, theocratic Muslim state in Algeria frowned on by foreigners?”

    Is not by Fanon. It is written by his colleague Charles Geromini who writes the appendix to “Algeria’s European Minority” in A Dying Colonialism.

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