March 7, 2013 Comments Off
As I continue my life in purdah, trying to complete my book, here is the second book review drawn from the vaults. The review is of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins; it was originally published in August 2010 on Norman Geras’ normblog, as part of his Writer’s Choice series.
The poet and statesman Aimé Césaire once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Columbus landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed its colony into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the work of Césaire’s Caribbean contemporary CLR James. Césaire was perhaps the greatest poet of the anti-colonial movement. It was James, however, who most eloquently captured the poetry of the Haitian revolution in his magnificent The Black Jacobins. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
If 2011 brought the promise of democracy to the Arab world, in 2012 democratic change appeared to founder on political reality. In Egypt, democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has tried to gather into his own hands powers far greater that that held previously by Hosni Mubarak, and is railroading through a constitution that many fear will undermine the gains of the revolution. In Libya and Tunisia Islamist-influenced governments are promoting laws restricting rights, constraining speech, and maintaining social inequality. In Bahrain a movement for democratic change has been brutally suppressed by the government. In Syria, the struggle for democracy has degenerated into a bloodbath, and one to which there appears to be no end.
From the beginnings of the so-called Arab Spring many people worried that democratic change would bring about the ‘wrong’ kind of governments to power, and would create social instability and entrench political reaction, fears that in many ways have materialized. So, how do those who advocate democracy respond?
November 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jacques Berlinerblau has responded to my review of his book How to Be Secular. He thinks that, unlike his conservative Christian critics, I have not ‘take[n] the time to understand what [his] arguments actually are’ and have made instead a series of ‘misleading claims’ about them. I disagree with most of Berlinerblau’s list of what he regards as my misleading claims. I don’t want to go line by line through that list refuting each and every claim. I do, however, want to take up two issues, which I regard as the most important in the debate that we are having: the question of democracy and that of how to build a constituency for secularism.
There are, in How to be Secular, two parts to Berlinerblau’s argument about democracy. The first is a political claim about how to build a coalition to promote secularism. The second is a more fundamental claim about the relationship between secularism and the democratic will. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Back in September, I wrote an essay about Judith Butler and the controversy over her winning the Adorno Prize. It touched off a debate in Pandaemonium, less because of my defence of Butler’s right to win the prize than my criticism of her work and, in particular, of her poststructuralism. I noted then that I have written little directly on Butler’s main theme, gender, but much, in the context of the debate about race, on poststructuralist / postmodernist conceptions of difference, identity, equality and agency. That critique is scattered across a number of books – in particular The Meaning of Race, Man, Beast and Zombie and Strange Fruit. I promised to delve into the archives, as it were, and publish some extracts from those books. The first – on Edward Said, Michel Foucault and the concept of the Other - I posted last month. This second extract, also from The Meaning of Race, is not so much a critique of poststructuralism as part of an explanation of how certain key themes in poststructuralist thought – in particular hostility to humanism and to Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and universalism – that once had been seen as the province of reaction came to be major currents in radical thought.
One of the problems in republishing extracts is that while essays and blog posts are generally self-contained, book extracts rarely are. In a book the argument runs through the whole work. Any extract necessarily assumes familiarity with arguments that have already been set out and builds up to conclusions that arrive only later in the book. At the same time, The Meaning of Race is now almost 20 years old. Many of the ideas that may have been barely formulated or ill-constructed in the book I have developed much further since then; some have changed quite considerably. I have, for instance, reworked the arguments about Frantz Fanon, the tradition that he represents and the legacy that he left. My forthcoming book on the history of moral thought contains new perspectives on humanism within both the liberal and Marxist traditions. Nevertheless, despite these shifts and changes, I hope that an extract such as this is still useful, both because I still stand by much of what is here and because it is, as always, a good starting point for debate.
April 16, 2012 § 7 Comments
1776. 1789. 1917. The American. The French. The Russian. The three great revolutions of the modern world. The three revolutions with which everyone is familiar, each one telling a different story about modernity. Yet, as I argued in my previous post, the fourth great revolution that helped define modernity – the Haitian Revolution of 1791 - is one that barely anyone remembers these days. It was the first true successful revolt in history. But more than that, the Haitian Revolution was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion. For that alone, it should find its place in history.
That we do remember the Haitian Revolution at all is largely due to the great Caribbean writer, thinker and revolutionary CLR James whose magnificent masterpiece The Black Jacobins eloquently captured both its political substance and its poetical spirit. An extraordinary synthesis of novelistic narrative and factual reconstruction (James had originally conceived of it as fiction, then wrote a play that was performed in London, with Paul Robeson in the lead role, before publishing the book in 1938), The Black Jacobins is a book that helped transform both the writing of history and history itself. ‘Men make their own history’, James wrote, ‘and the black Jacobins of San Domingo were to make history which would alter the fate of millions of men and shift the economic currents of three continents. But if they could seize opportunity, they could not create it.’ Three decades before historians such as Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson began writing ‘history from below’, James told of how the slaves of Haiti had not simply been passive victims of their oppression but active agents in their own emancipation. In Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great leader of the revolution, he found a tragically flawed figure, whose story laid bare for James many of the paradoxes and ambiguities of liberation struggles in the modern world. And in telling the story both of the revolution and of its figurehead, James created a work that was to become indispensable to a new generation of Toussaint L’Ouvertures that, over the next three decades, helped lead the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2012 § 6 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-written book on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 16. Beginning in the eighteenth century with Enlightenment hope and ending in the twentieth with postmodern despair, this chapter explores how the changing character of movements for social and political liberation have influenced moral thought – and how changing moral conceptions have, in turn, influenced movements for liberation. This extract is from the beginning of the chapter, and tells the story of the Haitian Revolution and what that revolution reveals about the relationship between morality and politics in the modern world.
Aimé Césaire, the Martinique-born poet and statesman, once wrote of Haiti that it was here that the colonial knot was first tied. It was also in Haiti, Césaire added, that the knot of colonialism began to unravel when ‘black men stood up in order to affirm, for the first time, their determination to create a new world, a free world.’ In 1791, almost exactly three hundred years after Christopher Columbus had landed there, a mass insurrection broke out among Haiti’s slaves, upon whose labour France had transformed Saint-Domingue, as it called its colony, into the richest island in the world. It was an insurrection that became a revolution, a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet which was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 and 1789.
January 2, 2012 § 11 Comments
Perhaps not since 1989 have we witnessed a year as momentous as the last one. From the occupation of Tahrir Square to the mass protests in Moscow, from the Euro crisis to the calamity of the Japanese tsunami, from the London riots to the Libyan conflict, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to the death of Vaclav Havel, there was constant ferment throughout 2011. But how will the events of 2011 shape those of 2012? Four thoughts:
1 Most of the Arab world will remain undemocratic. But the political landscape has already been transformed.
2011 began with great hopes that the Arab spring could sweep away the Arab regimes. It finished with fears that not much had changed, and that what had changed may not necessarily have been for the better. Regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia clung on to power, Syria brutally repressed demonstrators, the Egyptian army continued its bloody rule from behind the scenes, and Islamists and Salafists swept to victory in elections in both Egypt and Tunisia.
Both the original over-optimism and the current over-pessimism are misplaced. Revolutions happen quickly. The social and political changes they make possible take much longer to work themselves out. « Read the rest of this entry »