Insurgent universality

Imperialism still masks its claim to authority as a civilising mission. But, against this claim to present oppression in the guise of the universal, we need to return to the insurgent universality of…

As French philosopher Alain Badiou points out in his book Ethics, the liberal paradigm of rights and the defense of victims is the foundation of imperialism, of so-called “humanitarian intervention”.

The civilizing mission of imperialism, the “white man’s burden”, claims to defend the mere physical existence of a people. People are reduced to animals, excluded from politics; because they are unable to act politically on their own, they require the protection of a state.

“Who cannot see,” Badiou asks, “that this ethics which rests on the misery of the world hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man?” An intervention conducted “in the name of a civilization requires an initial contempt for the situation as a whole, including its victims”.

Today’s self-congratulatory discourse of moral responsibility and the ethics of military intervention – coming, Badiou points out, “after decades of courageous critiques of colonialism and imperialism” – amounts to little more than a “sordid self-satisfaction in the ‘West’, with the insistent argument according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity – in short, of its subhumanity”.

The counterculture of modernity

In 1799, the Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture was asked by France to write on the banners of his army, “Brave blacks, remember that the French people alone recognise your liberty and the equality of your rights.” He refused, pointing to the slavery that persisted in France’s other colonies, and replied in a letter to Bonaparte: “It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we want; it is the absolute adoption of the principle that no man, born red, black, or white, can be the property of his fellow.” It is still possible to claim the legacy of what Massimiliano Tomba calls insurgent universality, which says that we are not passive victims but active agents of a politics that demands freedom for everyone.

Indeed, those whom liberal thought reduces to passive victims have always been active agents of politics, the source of insurgent universality. In the words of CLR James: “The struggle of the masses for universality did not begin yesterday.” Paul Gilroy’s groundbreaking book The Black Atlantic shows that black radical intellectuals who adopted the heritage of the Enlightenment, as was foreshadowed in the Haitian Revolution, came to articulate a “counterculture of modernity”.

However, embracing the radical counterculture of modernity does not mean an uncritical embrace of the European Enlightenment. Gilroy criticises the celebration of European intellectual history as a manifestation of today’s “conservative complacency”, which romanticises the European past and “seeks quietly to reinstate the innocent, unreflexive universalisms liberal, religious, and ethnocentric”.

The project of insurgent universality is not advanced by purported Marxists who engage in uncritical and ahistorical celebrations of the Enlightenment, an old and tired position. Gilroy points out that these lazy analyses “remain substantially unaffected by the histories of barbarity, which appear to be such a prominent feature of the widening gap between modern experience and modern expectation”:

There is a scant sense, for example, that the universality and rationality of enlightened Europe and America were used to sustain and relocate rather than eradicate an order of racial difference inherited from the premodern era. The figure of Columbus does not appear to complement the standard pairing of Luther and Copernicus that is implicitly used to mark the limits of this particular understanding of modernity. Locke’s colonial interests and the effect of the conquest of the Americas on Descartes and Rousseau are simply non-issues.

In such a reading of modernity, not only are the crimes of enlightened Europe erased, so is the centrality of the black Atlantic:

In this setting, it is hardly surprising that if it is perceived to be relevant at all, the history of slavery is somehow assigned to blacks. It becomes our special property rather than a part of the ethical and intellectual heritage of the West as a whole. This is only just preferable to the conventional alternative response, which views plantation slavery as a premodern residue that disappears once it is revealed to be fundamentally incompatible with enlightened rationality and capitalist industrial production.

Universality is forged in insurgency

A universal position can be achieved only if we are serious about “reckoning with colonial modernity”, if we draw on the black Atlantic counterculture to put forth what Gilroy calls a “strategic universalism” that goes beyond Europe. Universality does not exist in the abstract, as a prescriptive principle which is mechanically applied to indifferent circumstances. It is created and recreated in the act of insurgency, which does not demand emancipation solely for those who share my identity but for everyone; it says that no one will be enslaved. It equally refuses to freeze the oppressed in a status of victimhood that requires protection from above; it insists that emancipation is self-emancipation.

From the plantation insurrections to the Combahee River Collective, this is a universality that necessarily confronts and opposes capitalism. Anticapitalism is a necessary and indispensable step on this path. As feminist Barbara Smith puts it, invoking a part of the legacy of the Combahee River Collective which must be revived and protected: “The reason Combahee’s black feminism is so powerful is because it’s anticapitalist. One would expect black feminism to be antiracist and opposed to sexism. Anticapitalism is what gives it the sharpness, the edge, the thoroughness, the revolutionary potential.”

James showed that every compromise of this kind of universality, every step away from the primacy of insurgency and the revolutionary potential of anticapitalist organisation, led back to the particularism of the existing order. This regression could be carried out by any identity, just as the leaders of the Haitian Revolution ultimately imposed wage slavery on the recently emancipated population. As James put it in The Black Jacobins: “Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrections shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.”

In 1957, James met with Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King in London, as they travelled home from Ghana. James, in the course of writing his book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, listened with great interest to the story of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. He later wrote a letter to King, explaining that he had sent a copy of The Black Jacobins to Louis Armstrong and his wife, Lucille, with instructions to send it to King after they had read it. He added: “You will have realised by now that my political frame of reference is not ‘non-cooperation’, but I examine every political activity, strategy, and tactic in terms of its success or failure.”

Elaborating on the meeting in a letter to his comrades in the United States, he summed up what all successful political events had in common: “the always unsuspected power of the mass movement”. It was this mass movement that would end legal segregation in the 1960s, establishing a new field of political struggle on which we continue to try to find our way.

Programme, strategy, and tactics. Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality. We are capable of producing it; we all are, by definition. What we lack is programme, strategy, and tactics.

This is an edited extract from Asad Haider’s new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, published by Verso.

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