UNCEASING WAVES

Excerpt From my Review of Christopher J Lee’s “Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

See full review at Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

““Concerning Violence”, a recent documentary by Goran Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker too reinforces the ‘angry black man’ stereotype, albeit unwittingly. Olsson’s documentary takes select passages from The Wretched of the Earth to make a case against European colonialism. The Fanon we see here is an anti-European, who rejected all that Europe stood for. Yes, Fanon was genuinely angry towards the brutality of European colonialism, but he nevertheless believed that there was something worthy of redeeming in the European tradition.

Fanon writes in the Conclusion of WOTE – and this is a passage that the documentary conveniently missed – “All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated by them.” These are not the words of a man who hated Europe; these are the words of a man who accused Europe of not living up to its own egalitarian values. This is a Fanon that neither the Right nor the Left recognize, and this is the Fanon desperately needed now. The “prophet of violence” who allegedly hated all things Europe is a person whom Fanon would have loathed. But one can suppose this is the fate that befalls all great thinkers. Nietzsche remarked that a martyr’s disciples suffer more than the martyr. What he should have added is that a martyr’s principles suffer most in the hands of his disciples.

Lee’s reading of Fanon provides a much needed nuance that is often missing when dealing with Fanon. “Fanon must be viewed not only as a critic of colonialism but a critic of postcolonialism.” (175) Arguably, Fanonism provides not just a compelling condemnation of the brutalities of European colonialism, but also a pre-emptive critique of the postcolony. While Fanon is most prominently used by the postcolonialists to denounce the alleged arrogance of European universalism, often they produce a narrative that excuses the worst excesses of nation-states in the Third World by attributing it to a hangover of colonial ideology. But this is an approach that Fanon scrupulously avoided, if the last chapters of WOTE are read diligently. And it is this Fanon that needs to be retrieved now – his “radical empathy” and universalist humanism do provide crucial insights on the several problems of identity that plague this century.”

Advertisements
Tagged with: , , , ,

Ferguson: Taking the fight beyond identity politics

Posted in International by Karthick RM on April 13, 2015

Originally published on The European magazine

It has been reported that two police officers were shot at Ferguson on Thursday, hours after the city’s police chief resigned in the wake of an inquiry into the excesses that his department committed under his reign. This assault follows on the heels of another fatal attack on two NYPD police officers in December by a young Black man who claimed to be taking revenge for police brutalities in Ferguson and elsewhere. Ironically, the cops whom he murdered also happened to be “people of color”. Can these incidents, the general mood of public unrest in Ferguson, be read as acts of “divine violence”?

Disease of the old world order

Slavoj Zizek evokes Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” to defend this argument. Without condoning or condemning, he rightly observes that such outbursts “with no concrete programmatic demands” are sustained “by just a vague call for justice.” Indeed, Benjamin’s thesis is that “If mythical violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying”. But this is only a part of it. Benjamin further adds, “if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythical violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.” Did the reactive violence by the oppressed in Ferguson achieve, or even aim at any of this? Sadly, no. Why is this? The “irrational outbursts” such as Ferguson are not symptoms of a new world order – they are symptoms of the disease of the old world order.

The advocacy of indiscriminate violence to combat White racist power centers is nothing new. In the past, Black activists like Eldridge Cleaver advocated rape of White women as a form of resistance to White racism – though he later expressed regret for such ideas. Life came full circle when he eventually joined the Republican Party and became a Christian conservative. What does this say? The reality is that the American system is more than capable of defending itself against such violent excesses by its minorities. If anything, it would prefer the pampering of such particularist minority identity politics because the postmodern logic of global capitalism requires the proliferations of multiple minority identities. This impotent violence of particularist identity politics, fueled only by anti-Whiteressentiment, creates more boundaries and comes nowhere closer to destroying them, which alone would be the real act of divine violence. So the White racists who are phobic about the “brutal Blacks” and the multicultural left who, to overcome a misplaced sense of guilt, celebrate “Black resistance by any means necessary” are actually conforming to the logic of the same system.

Overcoming black separatism

Frantz Fanon was precisely talking about this when he wrote in his “Black Skin, White Masks” that those who adore the Black person are as pathological as those who hate him. His message is crucial – the practice of attributing an immutable identity to an exotic Other and preaching phobia against it, as the racists are wont to do, or preaching a patronizing tolerance for it, as multiculturalists are wont to do, damages the possibility of an universalist political project. In fact, more than Black nationalists in America, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who took this message to heart, when he argued it was necessary to overcome Black separatism and fight on a universalist plank for all the oppressed in the country.

Where does this place those on the radical left? Of course, we have to, without any hesitation, acknowledge that the police system in several parts of America is totally racist. But at the same time, we should not slip into the quite problematic multiculturalist position of endorsing everything that goes by the name of Black/minority identity politics. One can acknowledge that a section of the population has been systematically marginalized, convey solidarity with their struggles, while also remaining critical of reactionary cultural and political tendencies within those minority communities. We can learn a few lessons here from VI Lenin who, while being extremely sensitive to the precarious position of the Jews in Russia, was also boldly critical of isolationist Jewish Bundist politics. To make an excuse that reactionary politics of minority communities have to be tolerated just because “they are different from us” is after all another form of racism.

Defending the egalitarian aspects of Western society

What is needed is, as Zizek suggests elsewhere, a “radical emancipatory Third” that rejects both an identity politics based on anti-Western ressentiment and a shallow liberal multiculturalist tolerance. It is this Third alone that can defend the egalitarian aspects of Western society. This might take the form of a reinvented Jacobinism or a heretical Leninism, but the urgent need is to imagine such a politics of universalism, one that breaks boundaries, expiates both guilt and ressentiment, strikes potently, and is lethal even without spilling blood.

Only this force which the current system cannot accommodate and liberals cannot imagine can bring forth the real event of divine violence.

Tagged with: , , ,

Ideology Behind Military Rape in ‘United Sri Lanka’

Posted in Politics, War by Karthick RM on March 7, 2012

The pathology of the Sri Lankan army in the episode of Mullivaikaal would have been all too obvious to those who watched the Channel 4 video on ‘Killing Fields’ in Sri Lanka released last year – a phenomena that Tamils have been exposed to for decades, but now on prime time. While the zeal that the soldiers in the 99% Sinhala military showed in executing bound prisoners of war shocked audiences world over, many were unprepared for their drive and ‘call of duty’ in dealing with captured Tamil women – as shown in the scenes in the C4 video where Sinhala soldiers vividly describe the naked bodies of Tamil women combatants whom they had sexually abused before executing with words that would make a pornographer blush.

But what is the rationale behind these ‘excesses’? Is there an ideology behind this or is it just yet another crime committed during a counterinsurgency war?

Those who followed what happened after the release of the documentary would be familiar with the crass sexist, gender-insensitive remarks made by Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on one of the female war witnesses who appeared in the video. While observers looked at it as the rant of a paranoid, what was missed was that same sentiments, if not worse, were expressed by the Singapore based Sri Lankan ‘counterinsurgency expert’ Rohan Gunaratna in one of his lectures on ‘Defeating the LTTE on foreign soil’ recently.[i] The gentleman, who has a few books printed in respectable publishing houses to his credit, instead of addressing the allegations of war-crimes and genocide placed by some prominent Eelam Tamil women war witnesses, was more interested in commenting about their looks and personal lives. An intimidation tactic? Or does an ideology lie behind this?

To paraphrase Mao, the best weapons the oppressed could use are framed by the enemy. Very well then.

The Sri Lankan liberal website Groundviews had a few days back published an article titled ‘History after the war: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation’.[ii] The author Dr. Dewasiri, a Sri Lankan academic, raises some interesting points regarding the dominant ideology in the ‘united island’.

1. In the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology the unitariness of Sri Lanka is not based on modern premises, but on a belief that this has been so for ages.

2. The ‘Tamil North’ in the island is a place to be conquered and occupied.

3. The military defeat of the LTTE, which had put a checkmate to this Sinhala conquest ever since its inception and the concomitant Sri Lankan military presence in the Tamil homelands alone was not enough. Tamils had to be de-nationalized and the Sinhala-Buddhist presence had to be increased in the North and East of the island.

That the author fails to deduce and state from this the genocidal intent of the Sinhala apparatus leading to Mullivaikaal, the protracted nature of the genocide of the Eelam Tamils aimed to culminate at a moment of complete Sinhalization, and the ethico-political need to support the demand for Tamil Eelam, is of course not his fault. A liberal academic, this is as far as he can go.

But his admission of the desire of Sinhala nationalist ideology for the conquest of Tamil lands gives us hints to the problem at hand.

Classic aggressive colonization of a land always imagines and equates conquest of land with control of that land’s women. While in action it usually works out in different forms – enslavement, rape, prostitution etc. in the level of discourse, it works as desire for seduction and possession of the native. From Said on to Chinua Achebe, a variety of postcolonial scholars have written on such ideological functions of colonial literary canons. The narration of ‘white man seducing and possessing the native and living together happily ever after’ has always been accompanied in real life by a most brutal pillage of the land of the natives, which it masks in romance.

Consider this personal narrative of a Sinhala gentleman married to a Tamil woman published on Groundviews.[iii] At surface level, it seems to ooze with sexuality and sentimentality. But as one goes towards the end, the theme is clear. Through an idealization of his relationship with his partner, the idea of ‘they’ existing as a distinct nation is dismissed and only ‘us’ is upheld as ideal. There is no guilt on the fact that over 100,000 of the nation of his ‘Other’ was killed fighting for a separate state by the government he pays taxes to. Only a frustration that despite her willingness to be as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, there is still discrimination. The desire for his partner becomes transposed through his narration onto a desire for a united Sri Lanka, which incidentally practices structural genocide against the Other nation.

The cynical multiculturalist argument – ‘Oh, they are not so much different from US after all. And they try to be like US too. So why cant we all just be US?’ To use an argument that Zizek used in his dissection of Avatar, beneath the politically correct words of this narrator, an array of brutal racist motifs exist. For his plea is only for those who are willing to be part of ‘us’. An Isaipriya, who would have never been part of ‘them’, was raped and killed. Along with hundreds like her.

Then, the logic of the soldier who believes that by raping a Tamil woman he is inflicting a blow on Tamil nation/culture is precisely the practical reflection of the logic of the Sinhala male who believes that by his wooing of the Tamil woman, the unitary state of Sri Lanka is possible/preserved.

(Does this mean that love cannot exist between individuals of the two nations? The author would never suggest that. But, if this ‘love’ translates into a discourse, a narration that justifies/upholds/masks an oppressive structure, it ceases to be an emotion. It becomes political. Moreover, in the time of Genocide even love, especially love, is a political act.)

A more obvious example would be the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Australia, Admiral Samarasinge (himself an individual accused of war crimes) stating to Australian parliamentarians about the success of reconciliation in the island by giving the case of a “recent marriage which had taken place between a Sri Lankan soldier and a former LTTE combatant.”[iv] Meaning is this. The wedding of a Sinhala soldier, emblematic of all that is ‘good’ in Sri Lankan society, to a Tamil Tiger combatant, emblematic of all that is ‘evil’ in Tamil society, shows that the island is finally one. A symbolic conquest par excellence of the hated/desired Other.

Frantz Fanon in his brilliant analysis of the role of Algerian women in resistance in the article ‘Algeria Unveiled’ notes how the colonizer viewed the veil as an impediment to his penetrative gaze, his desire to possess the feminine body of the colonized. “The European faced with an Algerian woman wants to see. He reacts in an aggressive way before the limitation of his perception. Frustration and aggressiveness, here too, evolve apace.”

Tamil Women's Power through the Barrel of a Gun

The ‘veil’ in this case is, of course, the Tiger uniform. The female cadre is a revolutionary subject militantly fighting the objectification of the Tamil feminine body by Sinhala patriarchy, creating history on the field through herself, by virtue of her uniform and her weapon. Considering that the women combatant of the LTTE often outshined their male comrades in inflicting crushing defeats on the Lankan army, her body and her uniform were symbolic of castration of the patriarch-par-excellence.

To the army man, the body of the female combatant and the uniform that veils it is unchartered territory, a mysterious locus of his neurotic-pathological desire and hatred, a symbolic challenge to his masculinity. So when the Tigers were militarily defeated, he had to unveil the inaccessible, he had to prove his masculine credentials; he had to reassert the supremacy of Sinhala patriarchy. At the risk of sounding cold, the sexual abuse of Tamil women cadres was expected. The very nature of Sinhala militarist-colonization of Tamil territory seeks to feminize the Tamil body-politic and penetrate it. The rape of the women who resist this penetration at both subjective and symbolic levels then needs to be seen not as case of individual pathology alone, but also as a systemic necessity.

‘Taraki’ Sivaram, the iconic senior editor of TamilNet who was assassinated by Sri Lanka, had observed that “One of the things that a regime of terror expects is the total submission of women to the regime of terror. Basically the regime of terror expects women to be sex slaves.” Submission needn’t be rape alone, though the threat of rape is always there. It needs simply to be the acceptance of the authority (legal, extra-legal, social) of the Sinhala patriarch and his symbolic figure. Dr. Dewasiri’s article talks about Sinhala-Buddhist ‘pilgrims’ flocking to Jaffna and about this being a politico-ideological act. But it has no mention of the proliferation of brothels in the city and the general profile of its customers. Nor does it mention Sri Lankan brokers from the south trafficking economically disadvantaged Tamil women from their homeland to other parts of the island, and sometimes, even outside the island. Nor the fact some of the commanders of the occupying army have advised the soldiers to ‘fall in love and marry’ the women, if possible that is.

To sum it up, sexual violence/attention that Eelam Tamil women face in their homelands is not an act of aberration committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces occupying Tamil Eelam, but is an inherent necessity of a neanderthalic Sinhala nationalism that wishes complete conquest of Tamil Eelam’s geography and concurrently views the body of the Tamil woman as a landscape of its desire, as an object if possessed will ensure the state’s unitary structure.

It is then obvious, as quite some Eelam Tamil feminists have pointed out, that the liberation of Eelam Tamil women is impossible without the liberation and complete decolonization of Tamil Eelam.

Women’s Day wishes.

[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCpARMjv6AU&feature=youtu.be

[ii] http://groundviews.org/2012/02/25/history-after-the-war-challenges-for-post-war-reconciliation/

[iii] http://groundviews.org/2010/05/22/living-with-the-other-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

[iv] http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/03/02/news32.asp

In Defense of the LTTE Tradition

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on March 2, 2012

Originally published at Sanhati

“our friend, valiant heart,
exemplary child, golden warrior:
we swear in your name to continue this struggle
that your spilt blood may thus flower.”
-Pablo Neruda

A few weeks back, in an interview to the right-wing Indian news channel Times Now, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that they still feared the rise of LTTE in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the paranoia of the Lankan army was so high on the Heroes Day week (November 21st to 27th) that it even forbade the ringing of temple or church bells, lighting of candles or public gatherings in this period. Despite this, the Heroes Day torch was lit in the University of Jaffna and people in Batticaloa gathered in public, in open defiance of the occupying Lankan military, to commemorate the occasion. Likewise, the Tamil Sovereignty Cognition declaration that was released on Heroes Day also stated that the symbols and expressions of the national struggle of the Eelam Tamils must be upheld.

The Other observed the occasion too. Sinhala officers in the Anuradhapura prison gave the Tamil detainees a present by stripping them and trashing them on the Day. It was rather obvious that even after their claims to have defeated the Tigers, the Sri Lankan government is unable to get over the spectres from the past that haunt their present. But just why this persistent obsession with an organization that has been, by all accounts, considerably militarily weakened? Is it the simple paranoia of the dictator of a banana republic or is it something more? While it might appear that what Rajapaksa and co. fears is a military regrouping of the Tigers, the essence of their apprehension lies in the persistence of the LTTE tradition.

The difference between LTTE as tradition and LTTE as organization needs to be emphasized here. As an organization, a movement can be crushed by assassination of its leaders and brutal suppression of its followers. But once the organization creates a tradition that stands above it, as ideas that reflect on society and provides a framework of and inspiration for action, a mere military defeat is never enough. The oppressor needs to do a lot more.

Every progressive national liberation struggle, especially when it is an armed struggle, creates, fashions and refashions traditions in the concerned society. A movement like the LTTE, an organization with a leadership and cadre that emerged almost entirely from the popular classes, the peasantry, women and other historically backward sections, works with traditions in a dialectical fashion.

First, it filters those traditions from the nation’s past and deploys them concretely, not as abstract cultural lamentations, in field as praxis. Second, via revolutionary praxis and the subjective pressures of the popular classes it serves, it purges tradition of its rot and heralds in a new one. Thirdly, and most importantly, the new tradition constitutes a radical rupture with the schemata of the oppressor regime in that it creates the political polarization that makes collaboration ethically difficult. Such a tradition exposes the Manichean reality of oppression and compels one to take a side.

The struggle is formed out of identity and the struggle itself takes identity to a new level [1]. For a people that were inferioritized by systemic state violence for decades, the counter-hegemonic violence of the LTTE was therapeutic – for a people who were made to accept an inauthentic existence through the look of the Other, it gave an option of becoming authentic subjects. Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth that

Fanon's mouth in Vanni - speaking for the Wrethced of Tamil Eelam?

“At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.”

More so for the Eelam Tamil woman, the worst ‘casualty’ of the occupation, for whom the violence of her participation in the Tiger resistance killed three birds in a stone – not only did she annihilate a colonizer and clean herself of inferiority, she also asserted her feminity by her symbolic castration of the Sinhala patriarch’s penetrative presence. Her weapon and her uniform was not just her humanity, it was her Tamil feminity. The authentic Tamil who backs the Tiger tradition fully comprehends the violent reality not just of war, but of Lankan socio-politics as such and realizes his identity, his politics through a movement that allows him to transcend his individual frailties and by engaging in a liberation of his group, through it achieving his own realization and liberation.

Once this phenomena is grasped, it is easy to understand patterns of Sri Lanka’s colonization of Tamil Eelam, its repressive apparatus demolishing all symbols of resistance and imposing physical threats on those who seek to adhere to them while its ideological apparatus, with aid from the collaborator-intellectuals in the Lankan institutions, funded NGO’s, spiritual organizations etc steadily perpetuate a discourse that the Tiger resistance was harmful to Tamil interests. The strategy of the Sri Lankan state and the powers that support it to prevent the mass discontent that prevails among the Eelam Tamils from breaking out into revolt – which would inevitably involve an appropriation of the LTTE tradition, would be to prop up dummy figures from among the various Tamil political groups as a voice of the people. Such figures would be used to deradicalize sentiments, deny the past resistance and its goals, and eventually made to settle for a solution that works against the interest of the majority of the Tamils.

A similar tactic can also be observed among the powers that seek to manipulate the Eelam Tamil diaspora. While a vast majority retain their sense of identity around the tradition of the LTTE, preserving its political and cultural symbols, there is also a privileged ‘Tamil aristocracy’ that is promoted by the host countries as a counter-weight to the voices that emerge from the grassroots. Splits are engineered, voices are divided, dubious NGO’s and organizations like the oxymoronic ‘Sri Lanka Without Borders’ are assisted in order to sow confusion among the people, and attempts are made through grand terms and tall promises to pacify a community that has a sharp sense of injustice. Vacillating elements that have lesser understanding of ground realities owing to both objective class positions and subjective decisions tend to move towards a piece-meal solution as it is put across as ‘reasonable’ while those who reject to compromise on the struggle’s goals are painted as ‘irrational’ or ‘extremists’.

The fundamental problem that such ‘reasonable’ people overlook is that unless the representatives of the oppressed community place their demands, in their terms and in view of the larger interests of their people, the powers have more than enough resources to scuttle the essence of the struggle and churn out a solution that would stop short of addressing the fundamental national question. As Sartre said, “If you accept to play the games by the rules set up by those who own or control the board, you will always lose.”

Progressives must, then, denounce such ‘reasonable’ solutions that would give the Eelam Tamils neither justice nor a lasting peace, but would only mask the mutilation of their polity. The LTTE had issued a statement in the early 90’s that defined a traitor as “whoever accepts or supports the Sri Lankan unitary constitution, the Sinhala national anthem, the Sinhala national flag.” In a scenario that is being hailed as ‘post-LTTE’ one should take this a step further and unhesitantly mark as renegades those who deny and/or denigrate the LTTE’s tradition of uncompromising emancipatory struggle against oppression.

The political resolution adopted by the 5th conference of the Co-ordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) on March 2011 said that “the defeat of LTTE is an immense loss to the struggling people of the world.” LTTE was not defeated because the Sri Lankan government was strong, LTTE was defeated because the LTTE was strong and it presented a model of development and resistance that was not in tune with the paradigms of the world imperialist forces. The credit for the military defeat of the LTTE then should not be given to the ‘genius’ of the Lankan government but rather to the calculated designs of the geo-strategic compulsions of world powers that had much to lose had a Tamil Eelam been formed in the wake of the Tigers. The weakening, distortion and the destruction of their tradition are a must not just for Sri Lanka but for these powers as well. Marx said that life may die but death must not live. Eelam Tamils were left to die. If the now ‘united Sri Lanka’ is allowed to live, as a system it is not only hostis Tamil generis, its very idea is hostis humani generis, an idea that the resistance of a people can be crushed by brute military force, pillage and unrestrained colonization. Its sinister implications for other people’s movements in the region and in the world should be obvious. The idea and the system need to be intellectually and politically defeated even as the tradition of the Tamil resistance is defended.

But this again should not lead to an over-confident assumption that the tradition of the LTTE cannot be defeated. Highlighting the role of principled subjective commitment even if there was no guarantee of success Lenin polemically asked “shall socialists behave like socialists or really breathe their last in the embrace of the imperialist bourgeoisie?” So the question we can ask is whether Eelam Tamils will behave like the inheritors of the Tigers’ tradition or will they walk like sheep into the welcoming arms of those who facilitated their genocide? For just as the LTTE tradition is the only potent force that can give the Tamils a practical rigor, an idea of an egalitarian society, a sense of dignity, a collective hope – all of which are necessary for future struggles to defeat the oppressor regime – the only force potent enough to defeat the LTTE tradition are the Tamils themselves if they waver in their understanding or commitment. And this is something that the oppressors know very well. And if there could be a worse crime in the history of the Tamils than Mullivaikaal, it would be if the latter is allowed to happen.

Notes

1. See ‘Eelam Tamil’ – The Politics Behind the Term for further on LTTE’s role in Eelam Tamil identity formation and consolidation

A Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Posted in General by Karthick RM on June 6, 2011

It’s a place where famous personalities are buried. A renowned writer and his, if I may take the liberty of using the term, ‘soul mate’ were also interred there. Rebels throughout their lives, they challenged established norms of relationships and family. Probably, they were the most famous polyamorous couple in modern times. They felt that the ‘normal’ monogamous relationship restricted individual freedom, lovers of the concept that they were when they were alive. When the female died six years after the male’s passing away she was buried together with him. Posterity would care less for their other relationships. The grave makes us ponder the intensity of the love and respect they had for each other (that far surpassed the feelings they had for other people in their lives). That is how I shall remember Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as theorists of freedom who were bonded to each other in life and in death. Sartre said that the living choose the dead. So do we choose the images of death and give it meaning. The stone grave of Sartre and Beauvoir reminds me that love, freedom and responsibility are not empty terms, not matter how hard cynics may try to conceive of them as such. They are lifestyles.

Together in Life and Death

Sartre died on April 15th, 1980. Beauvoir got a nervous breakdown after that. She writes in her farewell to Sartre “I lay down for a moment by the side of his dead body, knowing that we would never meet again.” This rather sentimental and irrational act, from the author of several books that deconstructed existing ideas of gender and love, should be witness to the greatness of the person to whom it was directed at and the nature of bonding she shared with him. This testimonial of affection from the mother of feminism should melt even the coldest heart of those who claim to be ‘feminists’ in her path but are sceptical of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship, often disparaging the latter. I don’t think either would have thought much of their ‘criticisms’ though. Sartre himself admitted that Beauvoir was “the only critic who mattered.” Indeed, his adoration and immense respect for her was such that he would discard hundreds of pages of his work should she raise objections against them. This short man who was a giant in the philosophy of ontology found his greatest strength in the company of the tallest figure of feminist thought. Their grave sends us that message.

John Gerassi called Sartre the hated conscience of his century. This was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order prohibiting the reading of any of his works in 1948. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists made two attempts on his life owing to his vocal support of the Algerian cause. Liberals like Raymond Aron and Camus, who eventually became hits in the US academia, hated his guts. Structuralists like Strauss, who stood for completely depoliticized academics, condemned him. Foucault and Derrida, the grand champions of anti-humanism, rejected Sartre. So did defenders of a kind of Marxism, that kind that believed in structures like an astrologer believes in stars, like Althusser and co. Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964 on ethical grounds also added him to the hate list of many others.

Sartre really didn’t care. He knew the intellectual-academicians and the politics that they upheld. He knew that people who treated humans like ants in their study would never take their message beyond a classroom of elites. And he was right. Imagine a mass movement or radical activism propelled by an Althusserian or Foucauldian understanding of politics. Besides, he had his own crowd too. In his heyday, Sartre’s name was popular in the costliest restaurant in Paris and in its cheapest brothel. His books were carried by students of the best universities in town and by blacks working on pavements. And wherever he was, he shocked and he stimulated. One of the foremost theorists of decolonization and identity, referred to Sartre as ‘a living god’ – probably the greatest compliment a thinker could get from a contemporary who was also his critic, an iconoclast like Frantz Fanon.

When Sartre died, his funeral was attended by about 50,000 people, probably the largest in history for a philosopher. It was attended by students, activists, intellectuals, writers and poets. Frenchmen, Germans, Blacks and Mulattos participated. The crowd contained homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, petty criminals and all those ‘abnormals’ on whom Foucault gave extensive lectures on in his career, along with large numbers of Althusser’s beloved working class. Few of these people would mourn Foucault’s or Althusser’s demise. The loss of these intellectuals was felt only in the spaces where they had created most impact – among NGO activists and academics – while the loss of Sartre’s was felt by a diverse section of people even after his political thought fell out of fashion in academic circles. That a philosopher should have left such an impact should speak volumes about the dynamism of his philosophy.

If one considers an intellectual to be someone who has written and reflected on a wide variety of complex issues, in a complex manner, then probably Foucault is the better intellectual than Sartre. One can spend years studying the works of Foucault but manage to grasp only a part of his thought. One needs to spend twenty minutes reading Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, with something akin to a conscience, for one’s own thoughts to be radically altered. Foucault may be the better intellectual; Sartre was the better man.

And what a preface it was! A better text to claim humanity for the oppressed could not be found and a better preface could not have been written. Sartre’s words to French citizens condemning their silence on their state’s crimes in Algeria “It is not right, my fellow countrymen, you who know all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not right not to breathe a word about them to anybody, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to pass judgements on yourselves” are still as applicable to citizens of so many oppressor regimes today. Sri Lankans, Indians, Turks, Israelis, Chinese can place this statement in the right context today, provided they have an iota of sensitivity. One can see the Sartrean spirit operating through a Jude Fernando or a Viraj Mendis, Sri Lankan intellectuals who faced death threats and had to undergo exile for standing by the struggle of the Eelam Tamils. But the world that we live in now, such intellectuals who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand by an ethical position are rarely highlighted in the news. Only the shrill-tone empty-content kind catch eyes and ears. Maybe this is somewhere connected to the general amnesia prevailing among the intelligentsia of the existence of a man called Sartre…

I have told quite some of my friends that there are no post-modern intellectuals. Only post-Sartrean intellectuals. You had those post-structuralists who talked about everything but took a position on nothing. You had those on the ‘left’ taking positions only on those issues that would give them instant attention in the media. You had those Marxists giving moral lectures on the bankruptcy of capitalism and imperialism but rarely turning a critical eye towards themselves and their own positions in society. Intellectual activity became a matter of convenience when it should have been of responsibility. Sartre, with the kind of intellectual courage that only an anarchist could possess, was never shy of making his position clear. Even should it alienate him from his fellow people. A trenchant critic of capitalism, Sartre, along with his partner, knew that socialism was meaningless without individual freedom. He realized that irrationality and emotions were as powerful forces as reason and logic in driving political movements. He gave theoretical justification to the violence of the oppressed, even if it was on identitarian lines, and acted in their support while others on the left were toying with terms or were just weak-kneed to take a stand. He had neither the comfort of a party like the communists nor the company of the elites like the liberals. As a person, he was alone but for Beauvoir. And that was his integrity.

We need to remember Sartre today. We need to remember him to remind intellectuals of their role in a world where there is such rampant oppression and few credible solutions. We need to remember him if we are ever to understand why in certain circumstances terrorism needs to be defended. We need to remember him to frame out a human and humane alternative to a world pillaged by capitalist machinery, an alternative that would not further dehumanize man under the illusion of taking him to some predestined goal. We need to remember him to make ethical choices in politics, in life and in literature.

We need to remember Sartre because we writers live in his shadow.

To his memory…

Tagged with: , ,