On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.

Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016

REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)

Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

Soviet travel brochures from the 1930s

In 1928, Stalin established a government-run foreign travel agency under the name Intourist (a contracted portmanteau of Иностранный [foreign] турист [tourist]). Though it had by that point already evacuated its international obligation to foment world revolution, Stalin’s regime was still looking to raise interest in the fledgling socialist state. All of the following brochures targeted potential tourists from the most advanced capitalist nations in the West — Germany, England, France, the US.

Stylistically, these pieces vary. Many are rather naïve, pastoral, even vaguely Orientalist, especially with respect to the more “exotic” Soviet Republics. Continue reading

Women’s liberation in non-Western contexts

Seeing all this press coverage of
Malala Yousafzai and the plight of women’s education in Taliban-controlled regions in Pakistan, and having recently revisited the sad history of the degradation of women’s rights in Afghanistan after the PDPA was defeated and the Red Army was driven out in 1989, I’ve been pondering the question of women’s liberation in “Oriental” (i.e., traditional non-Western) contexts. Lately I’m reminded of the revolutionary transformations that took place in Uzbekistan between 1920 and the early 1930s, especially with Zhenotdel‘s mass unveiling ceremonies, programs for women’s education, and anti-illiteracy campaigns in the region. All of these activities were carried out in tandem, as religious prejudices, domestic bondage, and illiteracy were to be combated both directly and indirectly — directly through propaganda work, and then indirectly through the removal of economic conditions that give rise to such social ills.

Education and domestic emancipation are more or less uncontroversial. Abolishing reactionary religious traditions is another matter, however. Despite the fact that Lenin was already insisting in 1922 that militant materialism necessarily implied “militant atheism” [воинствующий атеизм, more literally “warlike” atheism], there’s been a great deal of distortion on this score. This has to do with efforts to reinterpret the past to suit the perceived political exigencies of the present. Making the past dance to the tune of the present is a fairly routine procedure amongst certain parts of the Left.

Tashkent before the reforms.

Dave Crouch, writing for the International Socialist Journal, would like to pin all of the blame for antireligious initiatives like the khudzhum [i.e., the mass unveiling campaigns] on “Stalinist bureaucracy.” The fact of the matter is that the women’s division [Zhenotdel] and the Union of Tatar Godless [Soiuz tatarskykh bezbozhnikov] already laid the groundwork for such measures in the early 1920s. Members of either organization cannot be fairly characterized as “Stalinist”; indeed, Stalin had both of these wings within the party disbanded by the end of the decade.

Luckily, Gerry Byrne has already gone through and written a point-by-point refutation of some of Crouch’s more obvious gaffes. A couple points are worth mentioning. In the footnotes, two passing remarks by Crouch are particularly revealing:

It is a pity that Richard Stites, one of the foremost historians of women’s liberation in Russia, fails to see the khudzhum as part of Stalin’s “sexual Thermidor.” Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930. (Princeton, 1978). Pg. 340.

Crouch only says it’s a pity because Stites’ judgment runs counter to the view he would like to promote. Whether or not the khudzhum was a wise policy, a botched and culturally “insensitive” attempt to liberate women from traditional roles and conventions, it cannot be considered even remotely equivalent to the stricter divorce policies, abortion ban, and recriminalization of homosexuality instituted under Stalin’s regime. Stites is here, as usual, a far better historian than pseudo-Trot revisionists.


A few footnotes later, Crouch writes:

In 1922 the 4th Congress of the Communist International corrected its policy adopted at the 2nd congress and endorsed temporary alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism.

If this were actually the case, the Cliffites’ mechanistic anti-imperialism might appear grounded in longstanding revolutionary tradition. Unfortunately, no such “correction” ever took place. Lenin remained adamant to the end that Marxists’ position toward anti-imperialist movements abroad should stress “the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries,” as well as “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.” Of course, as Lenin’s injunction directly contradicts the ISO’s general line toward political struggles in the Middle East, it’s omitted. E.H. Carr’s book indicates nothing of the sort, either. See pgs. 254-255 of his book on The Bolshevik Revolution.

For this post, I’ve assembled three excerpts. The first is excerpted from an article in Kommunistka [Communist Woman] by Marie Vaillant-Couturier (mother of the famous French Resistance fighter Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, who testified at Nuremberg) on women delegates publicly casting off their veils [chadry] and burqas [parandzhi] at the Second International Women’s Congress in 1922. The second is from Louis Bryant, the wife of John Reid and a famous leftist journalist in her own right, in which she records some of Aleksandra Kollontai’s thoughts on women’s liberation, along with a couple of mild criticisms. Finally, I’ve translated an article Kollontai herself wrote about the conference with communist women and labor organizers of the East in April 1921. Moreover, there are some documentary photographs by the extraordinary Constructivist photographer Max Penson, who captured these revolutionary social shifts upon moving to Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1920 (he was Jewish-Belarusian in origin). Penson stayed in Tashkent for the next twenty years. These photos show Uzbek women going from full-body veils (women caught without them were often threatened by men with blades, burning water, and acid, even having dogs sicced on them) to brandishing rifles within ten years. Continue reading

Friedrich Engels’ “The Civil War in Switzerland” (1847)

Engraving of William Tell

While I appreciate Said more than most of the subsequent post-colonial theorists, this article alone should dispel the myth of Marx’s and Engels’ alleged Eurocentrism or chauvinism, as supposedly evidenced in their writings on the traditional societies of India and Algiers. Here Engels writes with more scorn and contempt about traditional society in Switzerland, in the heart of Europe, than anything either of them wrote about non-European societies.

At last the ceaseless bombast about the “cradle of freedom,” about the “grandsons of William Tell and Winkelried,” about the heroic victors of Sempach and Murten is being brought to an end.  At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the centre of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress.

It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.  As long as the democrats concentrated on the virtue, the happiness, and the patriarchal simplicity of these Alpine shepherds, they themselves still appeared in a reactionary light.  Now that they are supporting the struggle of civilized, industrial, modern-democratic Switzerland against the crude, Christian-Germanic democracy of the primitive, cattle-breeding cantons, they represent progress everywhere, now the last reactionary glimmer disappears, now they show that they are learning to understand the meaning of democracy in the 19th century.

There are two regions in Europe where old Christian-Germanic barbarism has retained its most primitive form, almost down to acorn-eating — Norway and the High Alps, especially Ur-Switzerland.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland still provide us with genuine examples of that breed of men who once beat the Romans to death in good Westphalian style with clubs and flails in the Teutoburg Forest.  Both Norway and Ur-Switzerland are democratically organized. But there are many varieties of democracy and it is very necessary that the democrats of the civilized countries should at last decline responsibility for the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss forms of democracy.

The democratic movement in all civilized countries is, in the last analysis, striving for the political domination of the proletariat. It therefore presupposes that a proletariat exists, that a ruling bourgeoisie exists, that an industry exists which gives birth to the proletariat and which has brought the bourgeoisie to power.

There is nothing of all this either in Norway or in Ur-Switzerland. In Norway, we have the very famous peasant regiment (bonde-regimente); in Ur-Switzerland a number of rough shepherds who, despite their democratic constitution, are ruled by a few big landowners, Abyberg, etc., in patriarchal fashion. A bourgeoisie only exists in exceptional cases in Norway, and not at all inUr-Switzerland. The proletariat is practically non-existent.

The democracy prevailing in civilized countries, modern democracy, has thus nothing whatever in common with Norwegian or Ur-Swiss democracy. It does not wish to bring about the Norwegian and Ur-Swiss state of affairs but something absolutely different. Let us nevertheless look a little closer at this primitive-Germanic democracy and deal first with Ur-Switzerland, which is what above all concerns us here.

Is there a German philistine who does not rave about William Tell, the liberator of his Fatherland; a schoolmaster who does not celebrate Morgarten, Sempach, and Murten along with Marathon, Plataea, and Salamis; a hysterical old maid who does not go into raptures over the strong leg calves and sturdy thighs of the chaste Alpine youths? The glory of Ur-Swiss valor, freedom, skill, and strength has been endlessly praised in verse and prose from Aegidius Tschudi to Johannes von Müller, from Florian to Schiller.  The carbines and cannons of the twelve cantons now provide a commentary on these enthusiastic panegyrics.

The Ur-Swiss have drawn attention to themselves twice during the course of history. The first time, when they freed themselves gloriously from Austrian tyranny; the second at the present time, when they march off to fight in God’s name for the Jesuits and the Fatherland.

On closer examination, the glorious liberation from the talons of the Austrian eagle does not look at all good. The House of Austria was progressive just once in the whole of its career; this was at the beginning of its existence when it allied itself with the urban petty bourgeoisie against the nobility, and sought to found a German monarchy.  It was progressive in the most philistine of ways but it was progressive nonetheless.  And who opposed it most resolutely? The Ur-Swiss.  The struggle of the Ur-Swiss against Austria, the glorious oath on the Grütli, Tell’s heroic shot, the eternally memorable victory at Morgarten, all this was the struggle of stubborn shepherds against the onward march of historical development, the struggle of obstinate, rooted local interests against the interests of the whole nation, the struggle of crude ignorance against enlightenment, of barbarism against civilization.  They won their victory over the civilization of the time, and as a punishment they were excluded from all further civilization.

As if this were not enough, these simple, stiff-necked shepherds were soon punished in a quite different way.   They escaped the domination of the Austrian nobility only to come under the yoke of the petty bourgeois of Zurich, Lucerne, Berne, and Basel.  These had already noted that the Ur-Swiss were just as strong and as stupid as their oxen.  They agreed to join the Swiss Confederation and stayed peacefully at home behind their counters while the thick-headed Alpine shepherds fought out all their battles with the nobility and the princes for them.  This is what happened at Sempach, Granson, Murten, and Nancy.  In return, these people were allowed to arrange their internal affairs as they wished and so they remained in blissful ignorance of how they were being exploited by their dear fellow-Confederationists.

Since then nothing much has been heard of them.  They busied themselves in all piety and propriety with milking the cows, with cheese-making, chastity and yodeling.  From time to time they had folk assemblies at which they divided into horn-men, claw-men, and other animal-like groups, and these gatherings never ended without a hearty, Christian-Germanic fight.  They were poor but pure in heart, stupid but pious and well-pleasing to the Lord, brutal but broad-shouldered and had little brain but plenty of brawn. From time to time there were too many of them and then the young men went off on their “travels,” i.e., enlisted in foreign armies where they displayed the most steadfast loyalty to the flag no matter what happened.  One can only say of the Swiss that they let themselves be killed most conscientiously for their pay.

The greatest boast of these burly Ur-Swiss was that from time immemorial they had never deviated by a hair’s breadth from the customs of their forefathers, that they had retained the simple, chaste, upright, and virtuous customs of their fathers unsullied throughout the centuries. And this is true. Every attempt at civilization was defeated by the granite walls of their mountains and of their heads.  From the days when Winkelried’s first ancestor led his cow, with the inevitable little pastoral bell round its neck, on to the virgin pastures of the Vierwaldstätter Lake, up to the present day, when the latest descendant of Winkelried has his gun blessed by the priest, all houses have been built in the same way, all cows milked in the same way, all pigtails plaited in the same way, all cheeses prepared according to the same recipe, all children made in the same way.  Here, in the mountains, is Paradise, here the Fall of Man has not yet come to pass.  And should some innocent Alpine lad happen to find his way to the great outside world and allow himself to be tempted for a moment by the seductions of the big cities, by the artificial charms of a decadent civilization, by the vices of sinful countries, which have no mountains and where corn thrives — his innocence is so deep-rooted that he can never quite succumb.  A sound strikes his ear, just two of those notes of the Alpine cowherd’s call that sound like a dog’s howling, and he falls on his knees, weeping and overwhelmed with remorse, and at once tears himself from the arms of seduction and will not rest until he lies at the feet of his old father! “Father, I have sinned against my ancient mountains and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

In recent times two invasions against these artless customs and primitive power have been attempted.  The first was by the French in 1798. But these French, who spread a little civilization everywhere else, failed with these Ur-Swiss.  No trace of their presence has remained, they were unable to eliminate one single jot of the old customs and virtues.  The second invasion took place about twenty years later and did at least bear a little fruit. This was the invasion of English travellers, of London lords and squires and the hordes of chandlers, soap-manufacturers, grocers and bone merchants who followed them.  This invasion at least ended the old hospitality and transformed the honest inhabitants of the Alpine huts, who previously hardly knew what money was, into the most mean and rascally swindlers anywhere to be found.  But this advance made no impact at all on the old simple customs.  This not so very virtuous chicanery fitted in perfectly with the patriarchal virtues of chastity, skill, probity, and loyalty.  Even their piety suffered no injury; the priests were delighted to give them absolution for all the deceptions practiced on British heretics.

But it now looks as if all this moral purity is about to be thoroughly stirred up.  It is to be hoped that the punitive detachments will do their best to finish off all the probity, primitive power, and simplicity. Then moan, you philistines! For there will be no more poor but contented shepherds whose carefree peace of mind you might wish for yourselves on Sundays after you have made your cut out of selling coffee made of chicory and tea made of sloe leaves during the other six days of the week.  Then weep, you schoolmasters, for there will be an end to your hopes for a new Sempach-Marathon and other classical feats.  Then mourn, you hysterical virgins over thirty, for those six-inch leg calves, the thought of which solaced your solitary dreams, will soon be gone — gone the Antinous-like beauty of the powerful “Swiss peasant lads,” gone the firm thighs and tight trousers which attract you so irresistibly to the Alps.  Then sigh, tender and anaemic boarding-school misses, who when reading Schiller’s works delighted in the chaste but oh so powerful love of the agile chamois hunters, for all your fond illusions are lost and now there is nothing left for you but to read the works of Henrik Steffens and fall for the frigid Norwegians.

But no more of that.  The Ur-Swiss must be fought with weapons quite different from mere ridicule.  Democracy has to settle accounts with them about matters quite different from their patriarchal virtues.

Who defended the Bastille on July 14, 1789 against the people who were storming it? Who shot down the workers of the Faubourg St. Antoine with grape-shot and rifle bullets from behind safe walls? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried.

Who defended the traitor Louis XVI on August 10, 1792 from the just wrath of the people, in the Louvre and the Tuileries? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the Neapolitan revolution of 1798 with the help of Nelson? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who re-established the absolute monarchy in Naples — with the help of Austrians — in 1823? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who fought to the last on July 29, 1830, again for a treacherous king 10 and again shot Paris workers down from the windows and colonnades of the Louvre? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

Who suppressed the insurrections in Romagna in 1830 and 1831, again along with the Austrians, with a brutality which achieved world notoriety? — Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund.

In short, who holds the Italians down, to this day, forcing them to bow to the oppressive domination of their aristocrats, princes and priests; who was Austria’s right hand in Italy, who enables the bloodhound Ferdinand of Naples to keep a tight rein on his anguish-stricken people to this very moment, who has been acting as his executioners to this day carrying out the mass shootings he orders? Always, again and again, Ur-Swiss from the Sonderbund, again and again, the grandsons of Tell, Stauffacher and Winkelried!

In one word, wherever and whenever a revolutionary movement broke out in France either directly or indirectly advantageous to democracy, it was always Ur-Swiss mercenaries who fought it to the last, with the utmost resolution.  And especially in Italy these Swiss mercenaries were always the most devoted servants and handy men of Austria.  A just punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle!

One should not think that these mercenaries were the refuse of their country, or that they were disavowed by their fellow- countrymen.  Have not the people of Lucerne had a statue hewn out of the rock at their city gates by the pious Icelander Thorvaldsen, depicting a huge lion, bleeding from an arrow wound, covering the Bourbon fleur-de-lis with his paw, faithful unto death, in memory of the Swiss who died at the Louvre on August 10, 1792?  This is the way Sonderbund honors the venal loyalty of its sons.  It lives by the trade in human beings and glorifies it.

Can the English, French, and German democrats have had anything in common with this kind of democracy?

Through its industry, its commerce and its political institutions, the bourgeoisie is already working everywhere to drag the small, self-contained localities which only live for themselves out of their isolation, to bring them into contact with one another, to merge their interests, to expand their local horizons, to destroy their local habits, strivings and ways of thinking, and to build up a great nation with common interests, customs and ideas out of the many hitherto mutually independent localities and provinces.  The bourgeoisie is already carrying out considerable centralization.  The proletariat, far from suffering any disadvantage from this, will as a result rather be in a position to unite, to feel itself a class, to acquire a proper political point of view within the democracy, and finally to conquer the bourgeoisie.  The democratic proletariat not only needs the kind of centralization begun by the bourgeoisie but will have to extend it very much further.  During the short time when the proletariat was at the helm of state in the French Revolution, during the rule of the Mountain party, it used all means — including grape-shot and the guillotine — to effect centralization.  When the democratic proletariat again comes to power, it will not only have to centralize every country separately but will have to centralize all civilized countries together as soon as possible.

Ur-Switzerland, on the other hand, has never done anything but obstruct centralization; with really brutish obstinacy it has insisted on its isolation from the whole outside world, on its local customs, habits, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, and seclusion.  It has stood still in the centre of Europe at the level of its original barbarism, while all other nations, even the other Swiss, have gone forward.  It stands pat on cantonal sovereignty with all the obduracy of the crude primitive Germans, that is, on the right to be eternally stupid, bigoted, brutal, narrow-minded, recalcitrant and venal if it so wishes, whether its neighbors like it or not.  If their own brutish situation comes under discussion, they no longer recognize such things as majorities, agreements, or obligations.  But in the 19th century it is no longer possible for two parts of one and the same country to exist side by side without any mutual intercourse and influence.  The radical cantons affect the Sonderbund, the Sonderbund affects the radical cantons, where, too, very crude elements still exist here and there.  The radical cantons are, therefore, interested in getting the Sonderbund to abandon its bigotry, narrow-mindedness and obduracy, and if it won’t, then its self-will must be broken by force; and this is what is happening at this moment.

The civil war which has now broken out can only help the cause of democracy.  Even though there is still a great deal of primitive Germanic crudity to be found in the radical cantons, even though a peasant, or a bourgeois regiment, or a mixture of both is concealed behind their democracy, even though the most civilized cantons still lag behind the development of European civilization and really modern elements only rise to the top slowly here and there, this is no great help to the Sonderbund.  It is necessary, urgently necessary, that this last bastion of brutal, primitive Germanism, of barbarism, bigotry, patriarchal simplicity, and moral purity, of immobility, of loyalty unto death to the highest bidder, should at last be destroyed.  The more energetically the Swiss Diet sets to work and the more violently it shakes up this old nest of priests, the more claim it will have on the support of all really resolute democrats, and the more it will prove that it understands its position.  But of course the five great powers are there and the radicals themselves are afraid.

As far as the Sonderbund is concerned, it is significant that the true sons of William Tell have to beg the House of Austria, Switzerland’s hereditary foe, for help just when Austria is baser, viler, meaner, and more hateful than ever.  This is yet another part of the punishment for the glorious liberation of Switzerland from the talons of the two-headed eagle and the much boasting that went with it.  And for the cup of punishment to be filled to the brim Austria itself has to be in such a pass that it could not give William Tell’s sons any help whatever.

Written about November 10, 1847

First published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung No. 91, November 14, 1847

Thomas Jeffrey’s 1762 Map of “Russia, or Muscovy in Europe”

A comparison of Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe and Richard Wortman’s Scenarios of Power

IMAGE: Thomas Jeffrey’s 1762 map
of “Russia, or Muscovy in Europe”


Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment and Richard Wortman’s Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II can be seen as approaching the same problem from two different angles. The problem is what exactly constitutes Europe, and the position of what came to be known as Eastern Europe in relation to Europe proper. Both studies are concerned with the peculiar case of a political and geographic entity that either appeared to foreigners as “European, but not quite,” or self-consciously conceived of itself that way. In the most general terms, Wolff approaches this problem from the angle of Eastern Europe by showing how it was envisioned (and indeed “invented”) by visitors from the West. Oppositely, Wortman is interested in how Europe was understood and represented by the tsarist regime in Russia. Continue reading