On imperialism, nationalism and revolutions


I was reading a reply by the millitant communist André Ferrat to a ‘study’ which appeared in trotskyist review “La lutte de classe” in 1935 (that’s 75 years ago!). The ‘study’ in question was entitled “Les problèmes révolutionnaires de l’Algérie” and although I have not read it, it would appear from the response it provoked from Mr. Ferrat that it was an attempt to discredit the Algerian symptoms of the looming national revolution by resorting to a ‘pedantic’ analysis whose only concern was to produce a confused and self-contraditory ‘theoretical magma’. Reading this article, I was amused to find the same old and eternal arguments and the same old eternal replies to them. These arguments are still used today by the likes of Israel and the USA (and even some representatives of the ‘oppressed people’) and presented as ‘studies’ and ‘analyses’ of the palestinian and Islamic terrorism respectively. What also amused me in this article, is that the commies did not seem to all have the same interpretation of what Marx or Lenin had said or written. Reminded me of the recent financial crash and how the economists of the various schools started having a go at each other, each claiming that they detain the right interpretation of capitalist or socialist theories of the distribution of wealth. Nearly a century has passed since the publication of this exchange of ideas, everything seems to have changed so much, and yet, in the end, nothing has really changed.

I include here some excerpts from the article which have reminded me of post-modern arguments we have all heard from politicians in the context of the various violent conflicts which are taking place in the world today. Take excerpt A for example:

Excerpt A

This is no other than the argument Israel uses to discredit the right of Palestinians to land. The argument goes as follows: “There never existed such a thing as a [insert here any name of the people you want to oppress] people! It was simply an unhomogeneous group of various ethnicities and tribes. Therefore, the land does not belong to them and we can legitimately take it (the implicit message is that ‘we can make better use of it’)“. Of course, this argument is only possible when you use a convenient concept like ‘nationalism’. The answer to this is of course that if we apply the ethnic homogeneity argument to establish which ‘nation’ is the rightful owner of which land, the majority of modern states (and even old empires) will be illegitimate. Now for excerpt B which I must admit baffled me:

Excerpt B

He talks here about the threat of islamisation of the communist party if arab members who happen to still believe in God are admitted. Ferrat seems to be saying that it is ludicrous to reason like this and that the emphasis of communist theory is on who should posess the means of production (i.e. the proletariat according to Marx) and not on the religious affiliation. He even cites a correspondance between Marx and Engels whereby Marx considers the ‘religious question’ to be secondary to the right to be a member of the communist party determined solely on the basis of class affiliation. Ferrat also cites the position of Lenin with respect to the ‘religious question’ and in this case, Lenin adds an interesting clause which says: there is in principle no problem for a priest to join the communist party and remaining a priest as long as he complies with the party’s discipline (?). Historically, communists have been known for their hatred of religion. Whether Marx intended it to be that way or not is beside the question because what matters is how communism has been interpreted and applied in practice. My own reading of the above statement by Marx is that he had a secular conception of the politics of the party, but secularism might well hide an intense dislike of religion.

But I digress. Going back to modern arguments, this excerpt reminds me of the argument which says: “there is a growing threat of the islamisation of the West and we need to counteract it (the implicit message is that it is a matter of life or death because Islam is inherently incompatible with the ‘West’)”). I am not going to comment on this argument because it is quite a complex one, suffice to say that it has been used recently in the EU discussions about whether Turkey should or should not be accepted as a member of the EU (in my view it has only managed to expose how vague the EU as a political concept really is). I will add here that secularism seems to be brandished at every opportunity to argue for the neutrality of the ‘religious threat’ when in practice it is often used to justify attacks on religion and Islam in particular. Now to excerpt C:

Excerpt C

This is the assimilation argument. The implicit message is that assimilation is a pre-requisite for social and political stability and a strong ‘national’ identity. This is used in practice to discredit some forms of dissent or even ‘passive difference’. Ferrat being a communist is against assimilation because he feels that it is always some ‘elite’ which will have enough influence to induce ‘assimilation’. It is true in a sense, because in modern age France for example, assimilation is still used as an argument to promote discrimination against the immigrant population. I am not against some forms of discrimination, but it seems to me that assimilation should not be a political objective that is clamored unashamedly by the State. Assimilation is a natural process which takes place when people see and experience alternative cultures which prove to be more useful and beneficial in reality. An amusing historical aside: it was no other than communist Mao who propelled China in a nation-wide ‘assimilation’ program through his ‘Cultural Revolution‘ (yes, commies cannot resist doing things with style!).

Excerpt D

Excerpt D is the ‘white man’s burden‘ argument. It is still with us today as you might have guessed. Indeed, the Western civilisation has upon its shoulders the noble duty of civilising the rest of the world and pulling them up the civilisation ladder (dragging them up even if need be!). This is a favorite one for justification of ‘regime changes’ (Iraq ‘democratisation’ by the US forces for example). The curious thing about this argument is that the oppressed people have ended up believing it. Indeed, it might not have been apparent in the past, but today I think the arabo-muslim population largely suffers from a deeply-rooted inferiority complex towards Western ‘civilisation’. This is expressed by loud and sometimes physically violent rejection of everything ‘western’ whilst at the same time embracing it (rather too enthusiastically for the comfort of my hypocrisydar) providing it is packaged in an ‘islamic’ wrapping paper. Finally, excerpt E where Lenin explains to us the dynamics of a revolution:

Excerpt E

I don’t know what he means, but it reminded me of the Iranian Islamic revolution against the Shah. Revolutions are executed by the masses (especially those with strong ties to the land like farmers for example) because they have the number advantage (i.e. they make perfect canon-fodder), even if they (revolutions) are in effect planned and prepared by the intellectual elite for the advancement of their own perception of what should be the good of the rest of us mortals.

To summarise, I think that there are two major concepts which have emerged in the modern world and which have contributed to destabilise the foundation of the old world: ‘nationalism’ and ‘class struggle’ (the middle class is a new kid on the block). Both are very unclear and confusing, but this is where their potency lies as political weapons. However, behind these concepts, we still find the old imperialist arguments. It is astonishing to realise how much we as formerly colonised people are still imbibed by communist ideology (it must have been traumatising to see the USSR collapse, a trauma on a par with witnessing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or the naksa). Which makes me think that the more things change, the more they stay the same! So why make such a fuss out of changing the way things are, when we can focus our efforts in making the best out of how things are? Revolution or evolution? My ancestors have opted for a revolution to kick out the ‘oppressor’, but here I am today wondering what good revolutions are when nearly a century later, things are more or less the same? Have we wasted too much effort trying to change the wrong things to the point where now, we have no energy left to try and change the right things? So many questions and hardly any answers or even any attempts to search for answers.

We as an arabo-muslim people desperately need to engage in some new political thinking in the context of our history. Enough imports (‘nationalism’ is an import which may have served its purpose in stimulating independance movements but it remains an alien concept islamically)! We need to assess our history and situate ourselves with respect to others without falling into the trap of ‘assimilation’, without giving into the complex of ‘the colonial mentality‘ and without mistaking rejection of change and progress for pride of a narrowly and superficially-defined cultural heritage.

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8 thoughts on “On imperialism, nationalism and revolutions

  1. Great analysis algerianna. I take it I don’t need to read that 10 pages long pdf file.🙂

    Your comment on the first excerpt reminded me of an episode of Stargate SG1 (I am a fan) where a court was to decide on whom would be granted the ownership of a body: its original human soul, or the parasite who attempted to control it. The human soul’s counsellor said that the body simply belonged to its original owner, that the parasite would definitively destroy this soul if left inside the body, and that the parasite was one of those bad guys. The parasite’s counsellor replied that the human was useless for he was too ignorant, and the parasite had knowledge and power and could thus make a better use of the body, exactly like humans are better than animals (here I remember many French officers’ writings where they compared the Algerians to animals, depriving them of their humanity characteristics, and making it morally easier to exterminate them).
    Basically, both agreed that coexistence was not possible and one had to leave the body. The neutral counsellor sided with the human soul with this interesting declaration: “Both beings have the right to live, but life as a slave in one’s own body is not life at all.”

    Another point you mentioned was how people have different (when not opposite) understandings and interpretations of their ideologies’ sources. You mentioned communism and secularism but if we consider Algeria, we can think of salafism, Islamic reform or renovation, or even the 1st of November’s principles. For instance, I have always found it interesting to hear people as different as the Algerian “salafis”, FIS people (the djazaara current), Hamas (ikhwan), or the former PRA president (Boukrouh) claim their fidelity to Malek Bennabi’s ideas. But as you suggested, this is not always due to a genuinely different interpretation but sometimes to an intentional misuse of these ideologies for some “hidden” goals.

    I don’t have an answer to your “revolution or evolution” question. I guess there is no right answer to it. There are theories on how people react to a change: shock, denial, anger, passive acceptance, exploration, then challenge. It looks to me like our people naturally followed these steps after the French invasion (the change), and the Algerian revolution was nothing but the final result of the evolution attempts’ failure. Now do we need to keep basing our development on this nationalistic feeling? Saying “no” is not easy as the alternative would need the participation of many other existing countries. I think that before considering such questions, it is mandatory to answer the question: what do we, as individuals and a group, want our role in this world to be? And it’s only when we agree on this objective that we would be able to define the means to reach it.

    Edit: I forgot to add some words on what you said about things remaining the same even after a revolution. Do you not think it’s because the objectives of those revolutions were forgotten after their success? or worse, that these revolutions had no clear objectives other than the revolutions themselves?
    Many people do accuse the Algerian revolution leaders of having lacked a vision on what the Algerian state would be after its independence. Others say that the real architects (Abbane, Ben Mhidi, etc.) of this revolution got killed (by French and Algerian people). Is there not some truth here?

    • Thanks MnarviDZ. You make some great points too, I like the analogy of the soul and the parasite, maybe I should start watching this Stargate!

      But as you suggested, this is not always due to a genuinely different interpretation but sometimes to an intentional misuse of these ideologies for some “hidden” goals

      Often it seems like this yes, but I sometimes wonder if it is even less sophisticated than this. For example, maybe people really do genuinely interpret written language differently according to their psychological make-up, their education, the epoch and society they live in, their tangible experiences and many other factors which make them who they are? I remember reading many verses of the Holy Qur’an with this meaning and I found them fascinating: that its message is One but that it will be diffracted by people’s hearts and souls depending on the ‘optical properties’ so to speak of these? That is to say, even if we assume that whoever writes a seminal work is absolutely clear about the message they want to convey, it will still be impossible that all people who read it will get the message intended by the author. Of course, it gets further complicated if even the original author was not clear enough, wrote up hastily etc etc

      Now do we need to keep basing our development on this nationalistic feeling? Saying “no” is not easy as the alternative would need the participation of many other existing countries. I think that before considering such questions, it is mandatory to answer the question: what do we, as individuals and a group, want our role in this world to be? And it’s only when we agree on this objective that we would be able to define the means to reach it.

      I do not agree with nationalism and I do think the sooner we get rid of it the better. There are many unifying themes we could adopt, it could be anything as trivial as football (kidding). But I agree that it is a potentially long process of retrospection and introspection too! However, it doesn’t need to be as ambitious sounding as ‘what we want our role in this world to be’ (although it might work at individual level). Simply answering the question: what do we as Algerians value? Would be a brilliant start and a good basis for planning and mass mobilization.

      Do you not think it’s because the objectives of those revolutions were forgotten after their success? or worse, that these revolutions had no clear objectives other than the revolutions themselves? Many people do accuse the Algerian revolution leaders of having lacked a vision on what the Algerian state would be after its independence. Others say that the real architects (Abbane, Ben Mhidi, etc.) of this revolution got killed (by French and Algerian people). Is there not some truth here?

      I think there is a LOT of truth in there!!!! This is the problem with revolutions in general, they never result in sustainable change for the better. Maybe the problem is, we tend to expect too much of revolutions because they’re bloody and traumatic? A revolution is simply a quick violent peak which in the big scheme of things may be actually undetectable, like background noise. Evolution is the general trend, you know like those spiky market fluctuations which have a general upward or downward trend. Say we imagined an evolutionary general trend for Algerian people, starting well before the revolution. Do you think it would be downwards or upwards?

      • Simply answering the question: what do we as Algerians value? Would be a brilliant start and a good basis for planning and mass mobilization.

        Indeed. Sharing the same ideal and vision is mandatory to insure everyone, or say a majority works in the same direction. I always wondered about Larbi Ben Mhidi’s doubts/certitudes ratio in the Algerian people’s reaction when he declared: “Jetez la révolution dans la rue et elle sera prise en charge par le peuple“.

        Maybe the problem is, we tend to expect too much of revolutions because they’re bloody and traumatic? A revolution is simply a quick violent peak which in the big scheme of things may be actually undetectable, like background noise. Evolution is the general trend, you know like those spiky market fluctuations which have a general upward or downward trend. Say we imagined an evolutionary general trend for Algerian people, starting well before the revolution. Do you think it would be downwards or upwards?

        I believe the society resumes its evolution from the level it had before the revolution peak, but the revolution definitely changes the moral and mental of the society which would thus evolve either faster or in another direction after the revolution takes place. And it is clear to me that the Algerian leaders missed a great opportunity, with a highly motivated population, after the independence to take our country to a higher level.

        Regarding your last question, I would say “plain flat” but chaotic.

        • […] the revolution definitely changes the moral and mental of the society which would thus evolve either faster or in another direction after the revolution takes place.

          True, revolutions do have a momentum which persists in the period after the revolution has subsided. I think the other problem is that the masses who get inflamed by revolutionnary ideas and ideals tend to be simple non-urbanized people who are easily manipulated and easy to appease also, they contribute to the failure of revolutions perhaps as much as they do to its success. The reason why we get less and less revolutions especially in the industrialized world is because their populations are mostly middle-aged, middle-class people. These people tend to be more difficult to manipulate because they usually have much to lose in revolutions and so end up not really seeing the point to them (I probably need to think this over more). I wonder sometimes if we will get to witness more revolutions in the West, especially in the wake of the economic crisis.

          Regarding your last question, I would say “plain flat” but chaotic.

          You mean to say clinical death-like cardiogram?🙂 Actually you are right, societies evolve in all directions and one cannot describe the general trend so simplistically, except perhaps if we define the ‘y-axis’ as being some measure of ‘sophistication’ which can only come with socio-economic progress (see above).

        • True, revolutions do have a momentum which persists in the period after the revolution has subsided. I think the other problem is that the masses who get inflamed by revolutionary ideas and ideals tend to be simple non-urbanized people who are easily manipulated and easy to appease also, they contribute to the failure of revolutions perhaps as much as they do to its success. The reason why we get less and less revolutions especially in the industrialized world is because their populations are mostly middle-aged, middle-class people. These people tend to be more difficult to manipulate because they usually have much to lose in revolutions and so end up not really seeing the point to them (I probably need to think this over more). I wonder sometimes if we will get to witness more revolutions in the West, especially in the wake of the economic crisis.

          I am tempted to agree with you on this, but only after I add some nuances:
          Manipulation here and generally is used as a negative value, with the manipulator influencing the manipulated for his own advantage. But what if the result is a win-win situation? Would this still be negative? I mean the poor, simple and non-urbanized masses are manipulated only because they believe that if the revolution succeeds then their situation would improve, and if it doesn’t then well their situation couldn’t get worse.
          If you consider the Algerian revolution, of course the majority of the population was not urban and the war mainly took place in the mountains. But can we neglect the efforts of say the workers in the Algerian cities, or the Algerian students?
          You mentioned the middle-class people who have much to lose and who wouldn’t revolt easily. It’s true, and I think this is one of the reasons all governments do their best to preserve this class. Providing jobs, acceptable wages, cars and houses to this class is a way not only to make them happy but also to control them, and indirectly to control all the country as this class acts as a stabilisation factor.

        • Well I agree with your nuance MnarviDZ, but what fascinates me is social dynamics and how to manipulate them to arrive at win-win situations as you say.

          I still do not understand why say the French revolution succeeded in erecting the Republic and the American civil wars contributed to build the United States whereas in our part of the world, all revolutions failed? The dynamics were more or less the same, so why do some fail and some succeed (talking about how to capitalize on a revolution in the post-revolution period of course).

          I don’t think it’s due to random chance, and I wonder what the critical factors are that influence the aftermath of a revolution. In the case of the Algerian revolution, saying it is the fault of the leaders is reasonable but why were the leaders elsewhere less faulty or at least more visionnary? It joins your latest post about information management as I cannot see any coherence or long term strategy in the post-revolution period of Algeria. Can you? It all seems like step-by-step (douga douga) crisis management stuff to me.

        • And I would like to add something about the algerian middle-class, to me they seem to adopt the attitude of a minority that is outnumbered and finds itself in a precarious situation. They are not yet at a stage where they could influence Algerian politics. But may be they are taking so long because they’ve been repressed by the communist era. It seems we systematically took the wrong turns!

        • Malek Bennabi wrote in one of his books,

          […]pour la vérité historique, il faudrait ajouter que ce sont les membres du GPRA qui avaient donné l’exemple de cette course éperdue. Les uns lâchant tout un plan à Tripoli où la rédaction du programme n’était même pas achevée, rejoignent Tunis pour s’occuper de leurs “affaires personnelles” et mettre au point leurs combines, avant de remettre les pieds sur le sol natal, en libérateurs. Gouverner, c’est prévoir, dit-on. Le GPRA non seulement n’a pas prévu la situation qui a suivi le cessez-le-feu, mais il l’a précipitée par le comportement de ses membres […]. Jusqu’au jour où les libérateurs s’étaient précipités au Rocher noir pour s’emparer du pouvoir, ils n’avaient en tête qu’une idée : réoccuper l’Algérie à mesure que le colonialisme évacuerait ses propres forces, afin que le peuple algérien n’ait aucune possibilité de leur demander des comptes sur leur gestion[…]

          I believe we were blessed that the war lasted only 7 years. Given all the problems between the different leaders and clans, I wonder if independence would have been achieved had the war lasted one more year.

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