(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics, Politics section, on June 11, 2013)
Can there be such a thing as a comprehensive revolutionary theory, a universal theory of revolutions that would be good for all times and for all seasons? Or, alternatively, have we reached a theoretical impasse of sorts, a glass ceiling in a manner of speaking, a kind of situation in which strategy and tactics are the only available resources, effective under some circumstances but not under others? Can we find a common enough denominator that would apply to and circumscribe all forms of human struggle against any kind of domination or oppression, be it economic or racist, against colonialism or neoliberalism, by the peasant or the indigenous folk, the truly disenfranchised and the dispossessed, or by the "sophisticated" denizens of the first world who, unlike the former, don't seems to experience oppression firsthand but only indirectly, not in any crude or physically debilitating manner but subtly, as if by proxy? Can humans unite under a common banner, humans from all walks of life, against all forms of oppression, a condition which seems to be the defining characteristic of the species and its checkered history and future? Is there hope for humankind?
In a sense, to be asking this question is analogous to asking whether there can be such a thing as a perfect chess game, a winning strategy against every conceivable opponent, or whether chess games are won (or lost) by gearing your game to the person sitting across the board from you, to their strengths and weaknesses, their moments of brilliance as well as their blind spots, their entire personality, and what have you. If you're an aesthete, you're more than likely to opt for the first alternative; but if winning is what concerns you the most, then the second-mentioned option is probably your best bet.
Offhand, we can think of two distinct, albeit related, factors which seem to mitigate against a unified theory of human struggle: first, the apparent lack of common language, the language of "common experience"; and second, the differential stages of different peoples' progress toward self-empowerment, which render their struggles incomparable since they may well be against different opponents, which, in turn, implies a different set of objectives. The first I consider as fundamental, the crux of the matter, and I shall take it up in the next article in this series; the second, as circumstantial. Both obstacles can be overcome.
Submitting what we know to the criticism of the "wretched of the earth," accepting that they have other knowledge that is not less or more valid that ours, [pre]supposes a double exercise: that of humility and that of commitment. Humility to accept the limitations of our world and knowledge in order to be disposed to learn from the others when they are common people of color of the earth.
Commitment because that knowledge is not available in the lustrous salons of academia, nor in the armchairs of institutions. Assimilating that knowledge requires sharing the pains and the fiestas, the walks and the celebrations of those below us, in their territories and in the measure of their time. Since remote times we have called this attitude militancy (free translation from Spanish by Marthe Raymond).
The cited passage reverberates with salient themes from both Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault. From Foucault, because of the very idea behind the genealogy of all knowledges, a project aimed at leveling the playing field: insofar as the power/knowledge equivalence is concerned, there is no distinction to be made between "disciplinary knowledge," the kind of knowledge taught in academia, and "insurrectionary knowledge," knowledge which defies it. And from Fanon, because of the singular focus on what was (and in some parts of the world still is) an unmistakably anti-colonial struggle.
By way of illustrating the extent to which the fate of anti-colonial struggles all over the world appears to fall on deaf ears, I refer the reader to the general drift of comments dedicated to this article, the second in the series. Aside perhaps from acknowledging the simple fact that we may be dealing here with situations and scenarios that don't exactly coincide with the Western idea of the revolutionary agenda, I haven't seen much of an effort on the part of the respondents to sympathize with the plight of the oppressed peoples the world over, let alone try to understand the exact ways in which their situation might differ from our own. The best one could say is that most of the respondents were rather noncommittal; the worst, that they exhibited a characteristic lack of indifference or unconcern. What's particularly disturbing is that we're talking about some of the most severe and highly articulate critics of capitalism and the decadent West. In a sense, therefore, this article is limited in what it aims to accomplish: it's to convince my comrades-in-arms of the error of their ways. Only then can we move forward.
But seriously now, what are the standard objections? And to what? To socialism in general or to the Bolivarian Revolution in particular? I suppose we may go along to a point with the first-mentioned disclaimer: for indeed, socialism had proven time and again to fall short of the mark when it comes to realizing that utopian, enlightened state of being on both the individual and the societal levels. And as far as I know, all astute thinkers and critics of East and West, North and South, all thinkers of anarchistic or post-anarchistic persuasion, are acutely aware of the dangers of statism, the inevitable byproduct of both socialism and capitalism alike. In the final analysis, the only difference between the two equally authoritarian systems comes down to substituting one master for another, the factory owner, loosely speaking, for the apparatchik, a state-sanctioned bureaucrat. So this cannot be the whole explanation, not insofar as the Bolivarian Revolution is concerned, not insofar as the object is to delineate a significant difference of opinion with respect to it between otherwise like-minded, right-thinking people, between people of the same ideological persuasion. There's got to be something else lurking in the background, something that escapes ordinary vision.
What is being lost in the translation, I propose, is the status of those struggles: we tend to view them as "post-colonial" whereas nothing could be further from the truth. It's for that reason and that reason alone that we're apt to respond to said struggles, or to whatever they've managed to accomplish, as though they pose some kind of threat to our cherished ideological position; which would also explain why we tend to remain noncommittal with respect to them, indifferent as the case may be or, to put it mildly, unsympathetic. But truly, even though the peoples in question, say the peoples that comprise the bulk of South America, may have attained a post-colonial status de facto, even though they may have won their political independence from the colonial powers of yesteryears, they're still beholden to the ole colonial ways and habits of thought; in spite of their independence, they're still under the colonial yoke in both body and spirit. It is this little factoid that the ever-discerning Western eye fails to take into account. That's not surprising, perhaps, because it is the West that's been the chief architect and beneficiary of colonization as the means to its own self-enrichment, and that continues "to proceed colonially in South America [and wherever it can] – refusing to transfer technology, continuing to rip off resources," et cetera et cetera.
But must we look any further than our own history to become painfully aware of the fact that a sense of national or ethnic identity doesn't accrue to a people overnight but only as a result of a slow and arduous process? And no, I don't mean here the rather unique "(North) American experiment" built on the backs of native populations and cemented by the institution of slavery, a sorry narrative of how the West and a nation were won, forging thus what was soon to become an (American) identity about to be appropriated by the rightful conquerors of the New World, for that's a chapter all unto itself; a cursory look at the European theater alone ought to suffice. And here, isn't the unification of Germany, or of Italy, for that matter, both relative newcomers to the European family of nations, a prime example?
Interestingly, both countries experimented with an unabashedly fascistic form of government. Both were belligerent to an extreme. Some historians, as a matter of fact, trace Germany's remarkably bellicose stance at the turn of the 19th century and onwards to no other factor than her, relatively speaking, late birth as a nation. Which again isn't to say that a rabid, unmitigated sense of national or ethnic identity is an ingredient we would want to cultivate if the object is total emancipation of humankind from the things that divide us – skin color, ethnic or national origin, or gender. Sooner or later, we must shed all of those things if we're ever to attain an enlightened state of being. But surely, and here comes the rejoinder, there are also times when nothing short of (re-)constructing a strong sense of national or ethnic identity, out of ashes, will do in order to reconstruct the long-shattered and fragile egos – of persons, groups of persons, of entire communities, in fact. Again, this may not be the ultimate solution, but it's surely a remedial one!
"One must crawl before one can walk," or so we say, and it surely applies to the situation at hand. The underlying analogy, the comparing of the birth of a nation, its characteristic aches and pains, to that of a growing individual, through childhood, adolescence and full age, may be stretched, perhaps too stretched for comfort. Even so, it's a useful metaphor as far as it goes: the vagaries of a nation-state, especially at the early stages of its inception, are not all that different from the travails of an adolescent trying to come of age. And whatever one or the other may do by way of reaching their final destination, it can be thought of as a prop, a stepping stone, as something to be discarded and done away with once it is no longer needed. Now, add to these considerations the fact that in addition to the economic rationale behind colonial domination, there had always lurked a racist element, an element which aimed at emaciating the entire people so as to make it indolent and malleable to the master's will, and you can readily imagine why the collective psyche of the colonized may have been damaged to the point of requiring the most radical kind of repair.
So if there is a moral to this modest article, let it be that no size fits all; and that there may be times when wars of liberation, liberation from the corrupt influence of the decadent West and its imperialistic outreach, may have to precede wars on behalf of a classless society. It's a matter of timing! And yet for some unfathomable reason, we tend to overlook this simple fact and hold each and every one up to the same Western standard: if it's not in accord with our way of doing things, then it's unlikely to succeed.
In any event, there appears to be a double standard at work here. For example, I don't exactly recall anyone pooh-poohing the French Revolution even though the French Republic, such as we know it today, had become just another liberal democracy, a fine sounding name for a political system which, at bottom, only justifies the workings of capitalism in terms of neoliberal ideas. Likewise, there wasn't much of a vocal opposition to the goals of the IRA in its struggle to win Irish independence from Britain, except perhaps for some of its methods. Even the Arab Spring, once it became evident that momentous changes were afoot, received reluctant support from our State Department, so long, of course, as the new governments would be "democratic" and anti-socialist.
Contrast this now with our gut reaction to such events as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, or South America's struggle, still unfolding, to free itself from West-imposed dictators and ruling classes ever-ready to do their masters' bidding, and the conclusion is inescapable. Capitalism is all that matters. And it doesn't make one iota of a difference, insofar as the West is concerned, how it is maintained, whether by a strongman or a parliamentary system which approximates the workings of a liberal democracy, so long of course as it is maintained. Everything else is fluff, a pretext, nothing but window dressing.
Let's keep this in mind before we move on!