Breaking bricks with George Ciccariello-Maher’s Decolonizing Dialectics: Some friendly engagements and reflections

by Matt Evans

What is to be done? This question centers George Ciccariello-Maher’s new book, Decolonizing Dialectics, which addresses racism and colonialism through the works of Georges Sorel, Frantz Fanon, and Enrique Dussel, channelling Marxism in a praxis grounded in explaining colonialism and local conditions of the non-Western world.

In terms of what is to be done, the book takes seriously a project to recognize “both the historical sources of that [dialectical] motion outside Europe in the colonies as well as the brutal reality that for colonial subjects, history often seems to move backwards rather than forwards,” and thus “sets out from the historical experience of those who have been instructed to either catch up with Europe by completing the necessary ‘stages’ or to await ‘objective conditions’ that are possible only under a full-fledged capitalism” (GCM 11).  Through a process of radicalization — an inescapable part of decolonization, as GCM admits — one addresses the contingencies, tensions, and indeterminacies of such dialectical motion. This project means looking to those who seemingly have abandoned dialectics in name — for example, Michel Foucault, seen by GCM to be more “liminal than outside” the dialectical tradition. In this sense, the Foucauldian notion of the genealogical method, “through the counterdiscourses it frees, presses towards dialectical motion,” freeing subjugated knowledges from their hiding spots and reactivating them in meaningful ways, as well as the interplay between macro unification and micro moments, are signs of GCM approach to dialectics (a reading disregarded by most readers of Foucault).

Looking outside the Marxist tradition — to people like Foucault who strongly denounced materialism and many of the French Marxist movements — is what GCM does well in this book. Providing meaningful theoretical accounts of Sorel, Fanon, and Dussel, GCM saves the first two from critiques of fascism and nihilistic violence, and the third from being bound to geopolitics, ethics, or theology. He transforms all three writers into fanatics—in Joel Olson’s sense of the term, rather than its common, pejorative usage—and positions them within a broader ecology of political thought, both within their localized contexts and the broader transnational Marxist discourse. GCM’s exploration of Sorel’s transformation of Marxism from being a science to a set of revolutionary ethics incorporates a meaningful discussion of “the violence of the exception” (made famous by Carl Schmitt, and developed by Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben), centered within a working-class revolutionary praxis. The discussion of Fanon delivers insights into racism and colonialism, while that of Dussel reveals “pueblo” to be both contingent and universal (in its dependence on Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the broad discourse of Christian liberation theology).

While these claims could be discussed further, let me offer some critical openings for GCM’s book that attempt to draw out some interlocutors, including feminist and postcolonial theory, but also push GCM towards some scattered horizons:

1. HYBRIDITY: Make no mistake, this book fits squarely within the abolitionist project, which may initially appear to be in contravention of notions like hybridity emerging from Homi Bhabha and Gloria Anzaldúa at different times. GCM points to Hugo Chavez’s notion of mestiza — and its blending of the Indigenous with the Western — as an ironic critique of elite insults of working-class Venezuelans. He also posits the conservative use of the term: “Charisma [is] a stubborn ideology of mestizaje, which insists that by virtue of a long history of ethnic intermixture, all Venezuelans are mixed and so racism couldn’t possibly exist” (GCM 146). GCM shows how Dussel theoretically straddles “the borderland of Being itself,” through the notion of “Barbarian,” which situates the notion of a heterogeneous and universalizing process of people creation “who are a dynamic and combative political identity that enters into being as it enters into motion” (GCM 132). These empirical and theoretical examples, I think, raise a broader point: How can Marxism confront hybridity in its Lacanian Bhabha or feminist Anzaldúa sense? Dussel, as GCM shows us, offers some resources. It would be nice to work through the notion of hybridity more explicitly, especially given the commitment the book makes to the liminal and the struggle of boundaries interactive within the object itself. Additionally, unearthing the intellectual lineage might push stronger engagement with postcolonial theory in all its forms, as GCM seems mainly interested in engaging with Walter Mignolo. Such an engagement, I think, would help work through the relationship between hybridity, political economy, dialectics, and feminism — fertile ground for abstract theory, but difficult for ontological and ethical translation.

2. NATIONALISM: Throughout this book, the reader is thoroughly engaged with the construction of a national community,and how that construction can be both liberating and destructive. Fanon proves instructive in suggesting how nationalism can be captured by the bourgeoisie and lead to a dead end, rather than, if quickly transformed, being the motor of forces creating more just communities (GCM 94). This cautionary tale of nationalism — as being necessary but difficult to harness — speaks to subaltern studies scholar Partha Chatterjee’s point that anti-colonial movements — specifically in India — are quite critical of the West but quickly borrow from the same liberal playbook in terms of the national project,and thus fall into a trap, which they are fighting, of becoming repressive in very Western ways. These anti-colonial movements create their own elite class that harnesses the nation for their own ends. Postcolonial IR theorist Sankaran Krishna, following Chatterjee’s insights, suggests that these anti-colonial struggles create an elite with an anxiety that they are not Western enough, and who therefore try to re-create the image of the West in their own framework. In some ways, we see parallels with dependistas who critiqued economic “development” in the Global South as being a type of colonialism, seeing the creation of an economic elite highly dependent on a Western flow of capital and resources to the colony, ultimately resulting in further pillaging and destruction. GCM might show us that Andre Gunder Frank’s dependista claim parallels Fanon, but the larger question concerns tracing ideology in these nation-building projects. Fanon and especially Dussel, recently involved in this decolonial option project with Arturo Escobar, provide a set of resources to think about nation-building and “development” through ideological strictures that might be explored more fully in this book. The decolonial option means an “analytic of the construction, transformation, and sustenance and racism and patriarchy that created the conditions to build and control a structure of knowledge, either grounded on the word of God or the word of Reason and Truth” (Mignolo xv). People who did not fit into this totality were violently marginalized, but when the marginalized were addressed to solve these injustices (through a process of inclusion) the “colonial matrix of power” deepened those power relations, where “he who includes and she who is welcomed to be included stand in codified relations of power” (ibid). As such, the decolonial option focuses on de-centering and regionalizing knowledge practices, dispelling the myths of the universal grounds for truth-making. Additionally, engaging postcolonial literature on nationalism, in contrast to Chatterjee and others, might help situate the mental colonialism that Fanon so wisely operationalizes and calls into question in White Skin, Black Mask. Doing so would also deepen the relevance and extend the conceptual structure of Fanon’s psychoanalysis, which addresses desire and fantasy in extremely meaningful ways.

3. UNSEEN/MIS-SEEN: GCM provides us with explanations of how all three theorists (Sorel, Fanon, and Dussel) present the mis-recognition/mis-identification of the working class, which flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of leftist and Marxist theorists. The notion of the lumpenproletariat — much derided as a group in much of Marxist theory — is fully explored in GCM’s examination of Fanon’s work, revealing how Western categories of Marxist classes are distorted, and how a type of Leninist opportunism operates through the working and middle classes, creating a class privilege and thus an investment in the raping and pillaging acts of colonialism. The notion of misperception, at a theoretical level, might engage what Ranajit Guha suggests in “Elementary Aspects of Peasant Revolts in Colonial India” is a discipline (history) that can never quite get at the peasant on their own terms. Their stories of revolt must always be signs and symptoms of other types of phenomenon (like state stability). Epistemically, it can be hard to gather information on the nature of these revolts (as these narratives are usually told by non-peasants with other interests). Historiographically, there’s a basic colonial problem of knowing, and thus one wonders how Fanon (or Sorel and Dussel) approaches this difficult issue. Does Fanon provide resources for Guha, or vice versa? Working through Guha might reveal the central role the historical archive plays in capitalism and colonialism (a concern Foucauldian anthropologist Ann Stoler spent some time on during her work on Indonesia).

4. POLITICAL PROJECTS ON A SMALLER SCALE: GCM’s book provides us with a sense of the descriptive explanation and political goals of each theorist. One of the points that could be more developed is how these decolonial acts can be used to critique practices within organizations, like unions or educational institutions, or the workplace. As a syndicalist, Sorel has a lot to say about worker control of industry, within and across organizations (and through aggregated arrangements that tie smaller organizations together into a larger body). If the anti-capitalist project is decolonizing at the macro level, what does that look like at the micro level, in organizations to which the colonized belong? Are there tensions between these three theorists with respect to these micro praxes? What would a decolonized syndicalism look like, both in theory and practice?

5. LACLAU/MOUFFE’S PLURALISM: Throughout GCM’s book, we get a sense of how Laclau, Mouffe, and the co-authoring of the two, have misaddressed various texts (including those written by Sorel and Fanon). While GCM spends some time confronting Marxian theorists like Hardt and Negri on how they misevaluate Malcolm X, the reader is not thoroughly engaged with either Laclau or Mouffe. The reason such an engagement matters, I think, goes to the fanatical project, as per Olson, that GCM is constructing in this book. One of Olson’s central critiques of Laclau and Mouffe is their placement of whiteness as one of many possible identities that can and should exist within their pluralist political project; Olson suggested whiteness should be abolished  — a point that he fleshed out in an academic article (Olson 2001) and through a personal engagement with Mouffe during a Q&A at the University of Minnesota many years ago (Disch et al. 2014). Joel would abolish whiteness if he could (as would William Lloyd Garrison and various nineteenth and twentieth century abolitionists). My sense is that, by borrowing from Fanon and Frederick Douglass, GCM wishes to see the obliteration of particular identities that exist merely to subjugate another person or group of people. Does this mean an abolition of whiteness? Are there other identities that fit within the production of colonialism, which would be abolished, and whose abolition would be an act of decolonization?

6. HUMAN RIGHTS: GCM describes Fanon’s critique of human rights (HR) as a Western tradition that cannot register or redress the sub-ontological zone of nonbeing for Blackness created through colonialism (GCM 65). This is an important point that might be interesting to situate in opposition to the Marxist defense and critique of human rights. Thus, Karl Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question” rejects the construction of human rights for the purpose of creating a separate civil sphere denying human emancipation. In the field of international relations, Marxists are divided on how to address human rights: as a fundamentally flawed ethical practice or in terms of their hypocritical application? Sheila Nair or Geeta Chowdhry might critique the latter through a postcolonial, Gramscian, feminist analysis. Certainly Marxist-Foucauldian-inspired theorists like Aziz Choudry critique international civil society for engaging in NGOization (the pro-capitalist reproduction of problems by NGOs, in order to attract donor money to keep them alive, thereby disempowering average people). It might be interesting to apply Fanon’s critique of human rights to this Marxist debate and explicate this critique a bit more. Looking through Sorel and Dussel for their critique of HR might also be productive for understanding the colonial ethos in HR, as well as some of the smuggled baggage of cosmopolitanism within Marxist theory, existing in the lived conditions of the First and Second International.

7. GENDER: GCM addresses gender in a few scattered points. Fanon was obviously concerned with the Oedipal development and sexual perversion of the colonized through the process of colonization. Towards the end of the book, Angela Davis explains the role of female slaves in resistances as being highly dependent on an “analectical foothold in the exterior of the community, however limited,” producing what could not be immediately appropriated by the slave master, and remaining “custodian of a house of resistance” (GCM 166-167). Analectical is what Dussel termed the “dialectical of the other” where the “‘historical-biographical’ Other” requires “relaunching the system as a whole in a dialectical motion that leaves people free” (GCM 113). Throughout the book, gender plays a role in the analysis of these theorists, but not consistently. One may wonder how cisgenderism or heteronormativity play out for the book’s three main theorists. Can these terms be accommodated within the three theorists’ frameworks? Are my suggestions for a deeper and more consistent gendered analyses in conflict with the fanatical project that GCM wants to build? As depiction remains central for Sorel and Fanon — and GCM draws upon the slave context of nineteenth century America to think through a decolonized dialectic — one wonders about the depiction of suffering and how it can be mobilized for missionary purposes, creating hierarchies of saviors and saved, damned docile and white bodies of gazing agents? Can these tensions work themselves out in Saidiya Hartman’s work? According to Olson (when I took his Critical Race Theory graduate seminar almost a decade ago), Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjugation was a gendered version of Fanon and the master-slave interaction depicted by Hegel (GCM spends some time explicating this slave-master dialectical interaction in Hegel’s work). The slave body, in their historical depiction, becomes “fungible” and thus “an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, and values; and, as property, the dispossessed body of the slave is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees the disembodied universality and acts as signs of power and recognition;” ultimately, “the materiality of suffering eludes (re)cognition by virtue of the body being replaced by other signs of value” (Hartman 21). The female slave was an object of sexual desire and moral danger: “Seduction erects a family romance — in this case, the elaboration of racial and sexual fantasy in which domination is transposed into the bonds of mutual affection, subjection idealized as the pathway to equality, and the perfect subordination declared the meaning of ensuring great happiness and harmony” (Hartman 89). For Olson, Hartman’s depiction of the violent process of recognition of the female slave mirrored and expanded both Douglass’s and Fanon’s narratives. Hartman and the struggle to depict the slave are implicated but not quite fully present in GCM’s text. The depiction of slaves emerges in several places, including a discussion of the site of symbolic ownership of French culture, as GCM utilizes CLR James’s discussion of Toussaint’s troops singing a French song in The Black Jacobins. For GCM, this means a question of abstraction, borrowing from Aimé Cesaire, of trying to bring the colonized to concrete rights by invoking French culture. At the same time, one wonders how this speaks to the process of ironic appropriation. Bringing Hartman into this discussion could help us think about the difficulties of depiction, appropriation, and the struggle for recognition (and some of the traps of various material relations and depiction of desires).   

8. EMPIRICAL APPLICATIONS: GCM provides several chapters of theoretical explication and investigation, thoroughly working through individual texts and the oeuvre of three theorists, but then applies his reading of these decolonizing theorists to Venezuela. On the one hand, his analysis is an act of breaking the barriers between political theory and comparative politics, and a way of investigating claims about the political world deeply grounded in the textual techniques of deep reading. At a minimum, engaging Venezuela is an attempt to break the stranglehold King, Keohane, and Verba (KKV) have on political science research (a stranglehold that confounds neopositivism with the broader category of science). I appreciate the KKV dropkick, affirming that dialectics can break the bricks of establishment “social science” (to borrow a phrase from the Situationist International that I draw out of McKenzie Wark’s most recent book on the topic). On the other hand, I wanted to hear more from GCM on the various philosophical, ontological, and ethical issues emerging from his investigations. Of course, the leap into other contexts — and the desire the reader has for such movements, a type of metaphoricity that combines linkages between contexts in sly ways — demonstrates the strength of any text. Creating such a craving and taking the reader beyond the boundaries of the field are prime markers of a great text. The fault of this book is that another 300-400 pages are needed for GCM to do all the things I want him to do.


About the author: Matt Evans is a Professor of Political Science at Northwest Arkansas Community College and holds a Ph.D. in political science from Northern Arizona University. He was a student of Dr. Joel Olson and Dr. Geeta Chowdhry (who provided the basis for much of what he knows of Critical Race Theory, postcolonial theory, political economy, and Marxism).



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