Decolonizing Dialectics

Decolonizing Dialectics

by George Ciccariello-Maher

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Anticolonial theorists and revolutionaries have long turned to dialectical thought as a central weapon in their fight against oppressive structures and conditions. This relationship was never easy, however, as anticolonial thinkers have resisted the historical determinism, teleology, Eurocentrism, and singular emphasis that some Marxisms place on class identity at the expense of race, nation, and popular identity. In recent decades, the conflict between dialectics and postcolonial theory has only deepened. In Decolonizing Dialectics George Ciccariello-Maher breaks this impasse by bringing the work of Georges Sorel, Frantz Fanon, and Enrique Dussel together with contemporary Venezuelan politics to formulate a dialectics suited to the struggle against the legacies of colonialism and slavery. This is a decolonized dialectics premised on constant struggle in which progress must be fought for and where the struggles of the wretched of the earth themselves provide the only guarantee of historical motion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822362432
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/03/2017
Series: Radical Americas Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 258
Sales rank: 651,379
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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Decolonizing Dialectics

By George Ciccariello-Maher

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7370-4



"The art of reconciling opposites by means of nonsense." It was with this characteristically heretical zeal that Georges Sorel denounced the dialectic in Reflections on Violence, earning him the accusation of "abuse" by a more recent defender of the dialectical method. When this strange French autodidact, trained as a civil engineer in the provinces but recently transplanted to the capital, stepped into the fray of Marxist debates at the end of the nineteenth century, he proved eminently capable of dishing out abuse to enemies, Right or Left. If my goal is to salvage dialectics, why begin with a thinker so abusive of the approach? Because it is not dialectics per se that Sorel despises, but rather an abusive practice in its own right, in which the dialectic — here uniformly singular — is deployed as a method for "resolving all contradiction." What Sorel calls the "dialectical illusion" is in fact an antidialectical masquerade, which emphasizes not rupture and conflict, but their resolution through moderation — a sort of Aristotelian golden mean. Rather than an abuser of the dialectic, might Sorel, like Foucault, therefore be counted among the best defenders of dialectics in the plural? In what follows, I wager that it is precisely from the jaws of such a ferocious critique of "nonsense" masquerading as dialectics that a radicalized dialectics might be snatched and put to use.

The ferocity of Sorel's critique was an eccentric product of an equally eccentric moment, the overlooked historical interlude after Marx but before Lenin, after the rise of socialism as an electoral force but before the cornerstones had been laid for what would come to be called Western Marxism — central among these what Sorel devotee Antonio Gramsci would name hegemony. Only decades after Marx's death, Marxism was an expanding and ambitious political force. This was not yet a time of Winter Palaces, however, but instead of party building and elections, in which the legacy of Marx was very much up for debate. Was Marxism a doctrine of unrestrained class struggle or reasoned debate? Was it — in Rosa Luxemburg's famous opposition — about reform, or was it about revolution? Was it a moral or an economic force? And was its communist consummation an inescapable destiny or a product of willful intervention?

Surveying this political context, Sorel saw more unity than struggle, more stasis than dialectical motion. He found a dialectic blocked not only by material developments, but crucially by an ideology of social harmony to which his contemporary socialists were not immune, and in which many were even willing participants. Thus when dialectics was trotted out as a prop toward compromise, Sorel seethed. But sharp words for the dialectic notwithstanding, I argue that he did not abandon the task of rethinking dialectics, even if he rarely granted the word a positive valence. Against both dogmatic revolutionary mantras and the reformist politics of social reconciliation with which they were complicit, Sorel radically reformulated a Marxian dialectics of class struggle that would remain faithful to Marx's spirit rather than his word — foregrounding the moment of subjective intervention, in which the working class presses its shoulder to the stalled wheel of history, re-creating itself as a class in the process.

It was through oppositional combat and deepening enmity toward the bourgeoisie, Sorel argued, that class identity could be reestablished and consolidated, ultimately pressing into motion a conspicuously open-ended dialectic. In the process of centering conflict and willful intervention, Sorel abandoned the determinism, teleology, and "necessary order" that made an illusion of dialectical movement. Against all such illusions, Sorel instead forged a dialectics that, while still grounded in European class oppositions, was nevertheless freed of many internal fetters and available for subsequent decolonization. But if Sorel's radicalized dialectic was the heterodox product of a heterodox moment — forged in the crucible of Parisian Marxist debates at the turn of the century — it had its roots in pre-Marxist reveries penned far off in the provinces.

Myths of Totality

Like Frantz Fanon and Enrique Dussel after him, Sorel was an unwilling conscript into the cause of revolutionary dialectics. In fact, his earliest works were not dialectical at all, and much less were they characterized by the unmitigated rupture and conflict he would later embrace. Instead, like the angel of history described by Walter Benjamin — another heterodox Marxist who later drew upon this maligned source — at first, Sorel faced stubbornly backward, glorifying a mythically harmonious ancient past as the "wreckage upon wreckage" of the present began to pile around his feet. Like the angel, Sorel would have preferred to "make whole what has been smashed," but he first had to embrace the wreckage itself — which took an active form in the concrete struggles of the French proletariat — eventually turning to face the future by embracing the present. Like Fanon and Dussel after him, the very process whereby Sorel abandoned his own nostalgic illusions of harmony would shape his dialectics to come.

This mythical, harmonious past was pre-Socratic Athens, the heavily idealized backdrop for Sorel's The Trial of Socrates (Le Procès de Socrate), published in 1889. This polemical account of the downfall of Athenian virtue at the hands of philosophy casts Socrates himself not as victim but as culpable. Socrates's guilt was symptomatic of broader class transformations, however, and Sorel's indictment was therefore "a sociological study of Socratism ... as itself a social phenomenon." In Sorel's idiosyncratic view, pre-Socratic Athens was a unified and harmonious society rooted in a sort of equality among warriors —"All are equal: this is the ideal of Attic democracy." The cement binding this social totality together was none other than Homeric poetry, the unrecognized original source for Sorel's theory of the myth. Sorel found a direct correlation between the egalitarian content of the poetry and its mythopoetic form: poetry imparted a simple virtue that required no specialized schools, only the traditional family structure. Heroism and love alike were available to all, and both — grounded as they were in enthusiasm — resisted intellectualization: one can neither fight nor love in a wholly rational way.

Socratic philosophy, in Sorel's peculiar reading, interrupts the egalitarian simplicity that Homeric myth taught and the family nourished, introducing into both love and war the pernicious principle of hierarchical expertise. In terms of love, Sorel accused Socrates of denigrating everyday, material love in favor of an abstract and cerebral love available only to the properly trained, thereby weakening the family as the primary vehicle for transmitting Athenian equality to the next generations. In the martial sphere, too, he saw Socrates as a corrupting influence who injected expertise into warfare where heroic virtue once predominated. If this military science contained in nuce the Socratic attack on Athenian virtue, Sorel's critique thereof contains an embryonic form of his mature dialectics.

Where Socrates sought "the perfection of military science," Sorel saw this as a contradiction in terms. To introduce science into war is to disrupt the psychological operations of courage, which require the sort of willful blindness that Homeric myth cultivated on the battlefield. Heroism is not calculable, and in fact, calculation short-circuits and destroys it. After all, who risks their life in battle if they are but a single and irrelevant datum in the hands of calculating experts? With heroism, equality too is lost, since "the old basis of Athenian democratic virtue in which mass action could be combined with excellence and in which heroism could emerge from anywhere in the ranks is now called into question."

If Sorel's critique of scientific expertise and attentiveness to its hierarchy-effects is arguably proto-Foucauldian, so too with his emphasis on the relationship between knowledge formations and social power more broadly. His indictment of Socrates reflected an anxiety about the role of savants in what was already and increasingly a society divided by social class. "There were no more soldiers or sailors," Sorel lamented, "but only skeptical and witty shopkeepers." Knowledge and power emerged as mutually reinforcing phenomena, and the "old soldiers of the Marathon" were no match for the new urban classes for which Socrates stood as both cause and effect. "When a society is divided into distinct classes in terms of knowledge, the question of oligarchy is soon posed," and this was an "oligarchy of the small shopkeepers and artisans of Athens — proud and cunning, liars and braggarts."

Wearing his contemporary concerns plainly on his sleeve, Sorel called this dangerously ambitious rationalism that replaces equality with the hierarchical rule of experts Jacobinism. In his view, Socratics and their political protégés, like the intellectual elites of the French Revolution, "were submerged in the theory of the absolute; they did not recognize the importance of historical law, this made them revolutionaries." And for the moment, Sorel was an unalloyed opponent of revolutions. Jacobins past and present considered themselves to be "perfectly logical. They alone possessed the revolutionary Idea." And since "right [droit] does not reside in numbers," they felt emboldened to wipe the slate of society clean no matter how much "the masses cling to their traditions."

The Jacobin for Sorel is thus the revolutionary imbued with the absolute, the philosophical idealist with nothing but contempt for the majority and their traditions and whose privileged access to truth justifies any and all means toward its enactment. In this sense, while Socrates was not a revolutionary himself, he may as well have been. "When the Good has been formulated and defined ... there is no lack of fervent spirits ready to draw all of the consequences from a doctrine," and to do so "by sword and fire" if necessary. If the tyrant Critias was arguably "the first Robespierre," for Sorel, Socrates was his Rousseau. It is this portrait of the Jacobin — as the violent, minoritarian absolutist — that provides the oft-overlooked red thread uniting this earliest of Sorel's books with his later work.

Sorel's anti-Jacobin orientation would come to provide the egalitarian content for the mythopoetic form that was the basis for Sorel's dialectic of class combat. Thus not only does attention to The Trial of Socrates help us avoid the lazy if almost universal tendency to attribute Sorel's concept of myth to the later influence of Henri Bergson, but it also helps us avoid even more dangerous errors in interpreting Sorel's dialectics by providing a glimpse into its genesis. The early Sorel had clearly identified myth as a motor of action, by situating epic poetry as the source of an Athenian virtue besieged by rationalizing science. While this early myth remained bound to a conception of social harmony rather than dialectical rupture, its opposition to hierarchy and ferocious — if misplaced — egalitarianism nevertheless point toward Sorel's eventual embrace of the class struggle. But absent a dialectical gearing, this mythical motor was bound to serve the cause of unity rather than oppositional combat.

Ironically, Sorel's case against Socrates falls apart at the precise moment that it gains social traction by pointing toward the socioeconomic transformation underway in Athenian society. After all, the savant — not to mention the philosopher who trains him — is a mere symptom of the new balance of class power that the shopkeeper embodies in practice. Recognizing this would eventually spell doom for Sorel's idealized vision of ancient Athens, which itself constantly teeters at the edge of disintegration and points toward class ruptures rippling just beneath an ostensibly smooth surface. But no nostalgic attachment to totalities past, no idealized image of unity lost, could possibly hope to hold up once Sorel turned his gaze to the present.

When he did so, it was through an intensive engagement with contemporary Marxist debates but unsurprisingly, given what we have seen, Sorel turned to Marxism not as a new science. Instead, he found in Marxism a new source of "social poetry" to replace the Homeric epic, but in one sense, these two sources of myth could not be more different. If the latter functioned to uphold the idealized unity of pre-Socratic Athenian society, the former entered history in Sorel's view as a divisive and conflictive force intent on nothing so much as the abolition of the unity of the present. Instead of inculcating a traditional egalitarian virtue in all of society, Marxism as myth recognized that equality could only come through struggle, seeking to mobilize and unify the proletariat — a part, not the whole — heroically toward that end. In short, it is at this point that Sorel's myth, by shifting from Homeric unity to Marxian division and from nostalgic stasis to revolutionary change, becomes properly dialectical.

In the process, the concepts of revolution and the absolute, moving in tandem with one another, gain a dialectically dual aspect that Sorel would then embrace. Revolution escapes the overbearing historical weight of The (French) Revolution, at the same time that the absolute slips the yoke of its Jacobin prototype. From being against all revolutions, Sorel would now craft an anti-Jacobin revolutionary dialectics in which the mythical absolute claimed a central place, not in upholding the existing but abolishing it. This shift toward a dialectics of class combat would only fully emerge once Sorel himself had relocated to Paris, where he ironically came to be known as the "Socrates of the Latin Quarter."

A Frozen Dialectic

Marx and Engels famously wrote that "the epoch of the bourgeoisie ... has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." It is from this increasingly clear opposition that the dialectic of class struggle spirals irrepressibly forth. But when an already middle-aged Georges Sorel surveyed the Parisian political scene fewer than five decades later, this was not what he saw at all. Instead of the progressive clarification of class oppositions through the unbridled logic of capital — and the unfolding historical dialectic leading to inevitable proletarian victory — he saw only blockage and stasis, a frozen dialectic. Instead of "directly facing each other" in a relation of unmitigated enmity, Sorel discovered with no small amount of revulsion that bourgeoisie and proletariat confronted one another in a far more mediated way, through the blurry lens of a social harmony to which even self-professed Marxists were contributing.

While Sorel therefore remained suspicious of dialectics and especially the dialectic as deployed by his contemporary socialists, he nevertheless pressed forward in a struggle over the meaning of a dialectics that would remain faithful to the spirit rather than the occasionally misleading word of Marx. His reformulated dialectic of class struggle contains three essential moments, each marked profoundly by his own stamp. First, Sorel diagnoses the frozen immobility of the present, becoming in the process one of the first substantial theorists of ideology and of what would later come to be known as hegemony. Second, confronted with a dialectical impasse, Sorel set about theorizing how the proletariat might — shoulder to the wheel of history — set historical oppositions into dynamic motion, deploying mythical violence to reestablish those oppositions whose sharp edges had been worn down by ideology. Finally, in a third moment, Sorel embraced the profound open-endedness of this dialectic by rejecting the determinism of his contemporary Marxists and foregrounding the unpredictable creativity of a radically transformative revolutionary violence.

Sorel's Marxist contemporaries were divided into two broad camps. Revisionists, buoyed by the unprecedented electoral success of socialist candidates, generally argued that evolving economic conditions unforeseen by Marx had undermined the relevance of the class binary. Without a sharp class opposition, revolutionary overthrow was unlikely, and so they proposed a range of reformist, gradualist, and even "evolutionary" strategies. On the other side, self-professed orthodox Marxists clung to revolutionary rhetoric by insisting both on the existence of class antagonisms and the inevitability of the socialist revolution, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sorel's own peculiar approach rejected both the blind fatalism of the orthodox position and the reformist consequences of revisionism. Instead, he revealed deep complicities between the two.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Ruptures  1
1. Jumpstarting the Class Struggle  23
2. Toward a New Dialectics of Race  47
3. The Decolonial Nation in Motion  75
4. Latin American Dialectics and the Other  103
5. Venezuela's Combatiive Dialectics  123
Spirals  153
Notes  171
Bibliography  219
Index  233

What People are Saying About This

Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class, and Social Domination - Charles W. Mills

"If the Euro-dialectic of Hegel and Marx has limited its adventures to the poles of master and slave, or bourgeoisie and proletariat, a decolonized dialectic must take in far more territory to be true to our multipolar non-Euro world. Drawing on Sorel, Fanon, and Dussel, George Ciccariello-Maher demonstrates how this classic philosophical concept can be dynamically developed to illuminate the logics of the emancipatory struggles of the global South against white supremacy and colonial/neo-colonial rule."

Fredric Jameson

"Critiques of the dialectic are a constant in the contemporary intellectual scene, most of them unconsciously animated by dialectical logic, as George Ciccariello-Maher demonstrates. His book traces the dialectical logic of two fundamental contemporary movements, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the internal debates within Black politics and theory. At the same time, he restores three great antidialectical thinkers—Sorel, Fanon, and Dussel—to their full dialectical stature, in analyses that range from the nature of violence to the different moments of nationalism and colonialism. It is an energetic and stimulating new intervention that enhances the theoretical canon and forces a welcome rethinking of practice itself."

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