Re-Thinking Enlightenment Internationalism in the Age of Right-Wing Atavism

The election of Donald Trump has renewed attention to the problem of the conflict between national belonging and international obligation.  Two particular questions have dominated the debate:  whether free trade deals have served the interests of workers and what obligations nation states owe to refugees, political and economic, and immigrants, documented or undocumented.  Something called “globalism” has appeared as a target of criticism but, like its contrary “communitarianism,” it is too generic a term to lead the debate in useful directions.  It demonizes “the global” without distinguishing between different types of global value system.  Just as there can be life-valuable and life-destructive forms of community, so too can there be life-valuable and life-destructive forms of international and global interaction and interconnection.  Critical judgement requires that we always distinguish between the two, always rejecting the life-destructive in favour of the life-valuable.

The life-destructive form of global interaction we can call by the name “imperialism.”      It can take many forms, but always involves the subordination of economically and militarily weaker countries to the economic and political interests of the ruling system of more powerful countries, whether that subordination is exercised through direct colonial domination or via debt and economic dependence.

The life-valuable version we can  call “internationalism.”  It traces its history back to the struggle against European colonialism in the 18th century.  The unfortunately and unjustly maligned universalism of the Enlightenment was the foundation for a philosophical and  practical solidarity between progressives in Europe and black and indigenous victims of colonialism in Africa and the Americas.  We would do well at this point in history to remind ourselves of the origins of the idea of international solidarity as a political litmus test to expose the phony progressivism of Trump and his ilk’s critique of ‘globalism.”

A critique of Enlightenment universalism as an ‘essenialist” imposition of European norms on the kaleidoscope of culturally diverse humanity was a staple of the post-modern philosophy of the 1970’s to the 1990’s.  The legion of criticisms directed against the philosophes rarely engaged in the textual work of close reading that these ‘deconstructive” critics nevertheless claimed to practice.  That is, they never looked beyond the slogans of the era (liberté, egalité, fraternité, the rights of man) to examine in detail exactly what the most politically advanced Enlightenment figures actually had to say about the struggles of colonized people against European rule.  In their practical and philosophical  expressions of solidarity they argued that humanity was on the side of the victims of colonialism, and not so-called European “civilization.”  They cut through the rhetoric of Europe’s “civilizing mission’  in the non-white world and courageously exposed it for what it was:  inhuman subordination and domination rooted in  racism on the one hand and greed on the other.  Let us take just two examples to illustrate the point.

The first is from Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique de progrès de l’esprit humaine.  While he does indeed see European philosophy and science as main sources of progress, he is careful to note the contradiction:  while these were internally progressive in so far as they undermined the legitimacy of the  Church and monarchical power, externally they either ignored or helped to legitimate colonial rule. But their ideological use was in fact the very opposite of their truth, which is to free ideas of humanity, equality, freedom, and reason from their identification with one particular culture and instead establish them on a truly universal foundation from which a critical understanding of the value of any particular form of life-  including the European-  can be developed.  Hence, against his own European culture he argues:

Les philosophes des diverse nations embrassent, dans leurs méditations, les interêts de l’humanité entière sans distinction des pays, de race ou de secte, formaient, malgré la différenace de leurs opinions speculatives, une phalange fortement unie contre toutes les erreurs, contre toutes les genres de tyrannie.  Animé par le sentiment d’une philanthropie universelle, ils combattaient l’injustice, lorseque,étrangere à leur patrie, elle ne pouvait les atteindre; ils la combattaient encore lorseque leur patrie meme qui s’en rendait couplable envers d’autres peuples, ils s’élévaient en Europe contre les crimes dont l’avidité souille les rivages de l’Amerique, de l’Afrique, ou de l’Asie.  Les philosophes de l’Angleterre et de la France s’honoraient  de prendre le nom, de remplir les devoirs d’amis, de ces même Noirs que leurs stupide tyrans dedaignaient de compter au nombre des hommes. (pp. 230-231)

(The philosophers of diverse nations embraced, in their reflections, the interests of humanity as whole, without distinction of country, race, or religion. They formed, despite the differences of their speculative positions, a strong, united phalanx against all forms of errors, against all types of tyranny.  Animated by a spirit of universal love for humanity, they fought injustice outside of their own countries when it was lacking, and they combated it even more, when it was their country that was guilty of being its cause.  They rose up, in Europe, against the crimes of greed that soiled the coasts of America, Africa, and Asia.  The philosophers of England and France were proud to take the name of, to fulfill the duties of friendship towards, these same blacks whom their stupid tyrants disdained to count as human beings).

It would be a gross misreading of this argument to think that when Condorcet says that the philosophers of England and France were proud to “take the name” of the blacks of Africa and America that they were usurping the voice of the victims of colonialism and slavery.  On the contrary, he is saying that they have listened to the voices of the oppressed and are responding by attacking the very European powers dominating them.  This is an expansion of the idea of humanity beyond its racist enclosure to white European reality.

Two centuries later, in his classic essay Discours sur la colonialisme, Aimé Césaire would echo Condorcet and expose the contradiction between “civilization”  and colonialism: “Et je dis que de la colonisation à la civilization, la distance est infinie; que, de toutes les expéditions colonial … on ne saurait reussir une seule valuer humaine.”  (p. 10)  (“And I say that between colonization and civilization the distance is infinite; that in all the colonial expeditions one will never find the realization of a single human value.”  From Condorcet to Césaire the consistent foundation of the critique of colonialism has been to expose the way in which it constructs the colonized person as inhuman.  The struggle against it therefore is a struggle through which colonized people prove their humanity to those who would deny it.  Franz Fanon made essentially the same point in Wretched of the Earth.

As powerful a statement of solidarity as Condorcet’s is, he does not examine in any detail the material forces underlying colonial  domination, nor call for its revolutionary overthrow.  That task is taken up by the Abbé Raynal in his Histoire politique et philosophique des établissments et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes.  Whether, as some maintain, the history was actually written by Diderot or by Raynal, the text is a classic of anti-colonialist criticism.  It exposes the nonsense of viewing European expansion as the spread of “civilization.”  It was, on the contrary, a most uncivilized, violent subordination of non-European peoples, their lands and life-resources, to the economic interests of the European ruling classes:

Et vous, vous, pour avoir de l’or vous avez franchi les mers. Pour avoir de l’or , vous avez envahi les contrées. Pour avoir de l’or, vous en avez massàcré la plus grande partie des habitants. Pour avoir de l’or, vous avez précipité dans les entrailles de la terre ceux que vos poignards avoient épargnés. Pour avoir de l’or , vous avez introduit sur la terre le commerce infâme de l’homme & l’esclavage. Pour avoir de l’or, vous renouvelle tous les jours les mêmes crimes.(p.558)

(And you, you, for the sake of gold have crossed the seas. For the sake of gold, you have invaded countries and massacred most of their inhabitants.  For the sake of gold you have buried in the ground those that your daggers have spared.  For the sake of gold, you have introduced onto the earth the infamous trafficking of people and slavery.  For the sake of gold you have repeated these crimes, day after day).

Raynal not only exposed the inhumanity of the colonial project, he called for its overcoming– not by an act of European noblesse oblige, but through anti-colonial revolution.  As C.L.R. James notes in his magisterial The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave who would lead the world’s first successful anti-colonial revolution against France, was inspired to take up arms after reading Raynal’s call for revolt.  Inspired by European philosophy against European practice, L’Ouverture’s armies would, over more than a decade of struggle, defeat, in succession, French, Spanish, and English armies and establish what is today Haiti as the first post-colonial, independent nation.

Through their success, the slave army of San Domingo proved a point made by Kant (perhaps a surprising source of justification of anti-colonial revolution).  Nevertheless, against those who maintained that only some groups of human beings are capable of self-government, Kant affirmed the power of political self-determination as anchored in the universal rational capacities of humanity, thus exposing once again the racist and ideological function of the arguments that denied those capacities to some groups:  “I cannot admit the expression, used by even intelligent men: A certain people …
is not yet ripe for freedom; the bondsmen of a landed proprietor are not yet ripe
for freedom; and thus men in general are not yet ripe for freedom of belief.
According to such a presupposition freedom will never arrive; for we cannot yet
ripen to this freedom unless we are already set free– we must be free to use
our faculties purposively in freedom [and] we never ripen to freedom except
through our own efforts, which we can make only when we are free.” (Quoted in
Arendt, Kant`s Political Philosophy, p. 48).

The political agency that led the revolution was indigenous, but the ideas according to which the slaves under L’Ouverture organized and legitimated their struggle were imported from France.  Which proves:  not that French Revolutionaries were being culturally imperialist in asserting the rights of man, but that the rights of man were powerful tools in the struggle against imperialism, and thus universal in a materially effective way far beyond what could have been the intentions of their French authors.

What is the lesson for today?  It is that there is a difference between trade deals that open borders for capital but keep them lacked for the human victims of capital and genuine international solidarity between workers and the oppressed.  Trump and his fellow travellers like Nigel Farage have effectively played on the fears of some segments of the white working class in the United States and Britain.  They have promised greater economic security by repudiating and repealing trade deals, and that is all well and good, to the extent that those trade deals serve only capital’s interests.  But capital’s interests can be served in nationalistic ways too.  Working class supporters of Trump need to ask him if he will work to repeal the reams of anti-worker and anti-union legislation that has so compromised American workers’ ability to fight back.  I think we know what the answer to that question will be.

At the same time, what has most worried people– and rightly so– is not the critique of NAFTA or the TPP, but the demonization of non-whites and immigrants.  They have buttressed the economic argument through full-throat fulminations against immigrants and foreigners which call to mind, even if they do not exactly repeat, the blood and soil atavism of the worst moments of human history.

Against their racist fear mongering opponents need to affirm the revolutionary anti-colonialism that was first expressed by the most politically advanced thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Working people advance within nations when conditions between nations are most ripe for successful struggles.  We might think that the pre-NAFTA, pre-WTO world was a Golden Age for workers.  It was not.  But there were real increases in working class living standards between 1945 and 1973.  Some of those gains can be explained by the rapid growth of productivity during those years. But productivity gains can just as easily be consumed by capital as profit as paid out in wages.  Hence, the other side of the explanation is that capital was willing to share a higher per centage of profit as wages because there was the ideological need to legitimate capitalism in the face of what looked like a real communist alternative.

In no small part communism appeared as a real alternative because of the many anti-colonial uprisings supported (even if for cynical reasons)  by the Soviet Union and China.  The democratic vitality of these revolutions was not in their funding source but in the agency of the oppressed which sustained them and led them to victory.  Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution (to take only one example, most a propos today) had many internal political limitations, but he was not hated by Western rulers because of the abominable way his party treated gays and lesbians or their refusal to allow the formation of free trade unions.  He was hated because, over fifty years, he defied their arrogance and was an unfailing supporter, ideologically and materially, of people fighting racism and colonialism, from Angola (where 25 000 Cuban troops fought against the apartheid-backed forces of Jonas Savimbi), to Venezuela today.

One could thus say, with some truth, that American, Canadian, and European workers owe a debt to the revolutionaries of the Third World whose heroic struggles sowed the seeds of doubt in Western ruling classes about the stability of the international system.

This history, the history of international solidarity, is the one that needs to be recovered today.  The left will not revive, nor the shared life-interests of workers be served,  by retreating into localized particularisms.  The interests of the colonized, the displaced, and those in search of refuge, are human interests.  That is the lesson the Trumpites need to be taught.

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  1. Pingback: How Do You Like The End of the Enlightenment Now? | Jeff Noonan: Interventions and Evocations

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