Review of George Ciccariello-Maher: Decolonizing Dialectics

George Ciccariello-Maher: Decolonizing Dialectics, Duke University Press, 2017, pp 256, paperback, $23.95, ISBN: 978-0-8223-6243-2.

Review by Benjamin P. Davis, Emory University

“For too long,” George Ciccariello-Maher writes, “dialectics has not served to denote such moments of combative division that give its name, but instead the opposite: a harmonious closure often announced but rarely experienced” (1). From the very beginning of Decolonizing Dialectics, he argues against the ideology of harmony and closure and toward movements of struggle and difference—ruptures.

Ciccariello-Maher describes “dialectics” as “the dynamic movement of conflictive oppositions” (2). Dialectics as such helps the thinker to consider historical questions about what to preserve and discard as well as how to move forward. By self-consciously posing these as live questions, he places himself against politically conservative readings of Hegel that emphasize not the becomings of engaging in dialectical struggles, but, rather, the being enmeshed in the dialectic—in the singular, linear, progressive, deterministic, universal, and teleological. Ultimately, Ciccariello-Maher wants to subject the dialectical tradition itself to a “decolonizing Aufhebung” (6) by foregrounding opposition, particularity, separation, localization and contingency—the “indeterminacy of the future” (11). Priority goes to contestation in praxis, not unity in unconsciously carrying out the work of history. Ciccariello-Maher’s book moves by taking up three figures who are critical of, but not outside, the dialectical tradition: Georges Sorel, Franz Fanon, and Enrique Dussel.

In chapter one Ciccariello-Maher engages the French syndicalist Georges Sorel, who provides a foundation of radical combat open to subsequent decolonization. Sorel sees necessary order, the resolutions of contradictions, and deterministic teleology as illusions. In his threefold dialectic, he (1) diagnoses an immobility of the present, (2) sees mythical violence as a means to sharpen class oppositions (of bourgeois force and proletarian violence), and (3) foregrounds creative and unpredictable violence that leaves struggle open-ended (28-29). Through (1) he stands deeply critical of reformers, whose erasures of class identity operate through both education for “unity” (here a national false universal) and labor arbitration for mediation. Thus inequalities are both tempered and, through parliamentary mechanisms, legitimated. Through (2) he reverses the usual formulation of Marx’s Klasse für sich and Klasse an sich; for Sorel, class-for-itself “precedes and produces the class-in-itself, pressing history into motion subjectively” toward a violence of rupture, destroying hierarchy in an undetermined manner akin to the “pure means” of Walter Benjamin’s “law-destroying” divine violence (35-36). Sorel’s radicalized dialectic opens onto a decolonized dialectics through its rejection of received dogmas, awareness of false universals (which often wear masks of ethics), understanding of ideology, insistence on deepening the diremption between classes, and a loosening of the determinism between the economic and the political.

Chapter two takes Franz Fanon as its central figure. In Black Skin, White Masks, through a description of lived experience, Fanon demonstrates that the path of access to universal humanity is closed to particular racialized subjects, in this case to Black subjects. Corresponding to Sorel’s demonstration of the narrative of harmony halting dialectical motion, Fanon shows how the false universals of “emancipation” and formal equality (50), alibis of white supremacy (64), conceal their oppression. In turn, for reasons more ontological than ideological, Hegel’s presumed “shared basis for reciprocity and ultimately recognition” (53) is blocked from the outset, rendering dialectical motion inaccessible. In this context—against both Hegel’s presumption of reciprocity and Sartre’s imprisonment of race (through subsumption) within a predetermined class-based dialectic—, Fanon asserts Black identity over and against determinism and illusory reconciliation. “Fanon’s predialectical struggle to enforce the basis for symmetry through combat, and the counterontological violence it entails, could therefore be best summarized in these three words: making oneself known” (58). As Ciccariello-Maher notes about the politics of colonial societies, including that of the United States, “Despite the fact that actual, concrete violence lay almost exclusively on the side of whiteness, Black resistance is always deemed violent whatever form it takes” (61). “For the racialized subject,” he continues, “self-consciousness as human requires counterviolence against ontological force. In a historical situation marked by the denial of reciprocity and condemnation to nonbeing, that reciprocity can only result from the combative self-assertion of identity” (63). Indeed, it is precisely this violence that “operates toward the decolonization of being” (63). Fanon’s contribution, then, comprises the de-colonization of Hegel’s approach not exactly from the ground up, but, more precisely, from the “subontological realm to which the racialized are condemned,” gesturing toward the pre-dialectical and counterontological violence that dialectical opposition requires (70).

Chapter three focuses on Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, beginning from the observation that in colonial societies, “Division already exists and is undeniable; it is embedded in the architectural makers of everyday life” (81). The dialectical response to this division is not unity, but violence, “the essential precondition for national identity” (86) and also a “trustworthy vaccine” (95) for the decolonial nation against the dual threat posed by the insidious “post” of “post-colonial”: the trap within “the simplistic nationalism that had been its initial motor” and the absorption into “the neocolonial continuity of the capitalist world-system” (91). Moving through his emphasis on violence, Fanon opens the decolonial nation outward onto “a unified decolonial struggle of global proportions” (97).

Chapter four looks to Enrique Dussel to elaborate on the nontotalizing motion of Fanon’s decolonial nation. For Dussel, totalitarianism—under which the Other suffers differentially and disproportionately—always lurks behind totality. In response, Dussel works through Hegelian dialectics and Levinasian exteriority—a move toward the “outside” he calls “analectics”—while shifting terminologically from Fanon’s “nation” to el pueblo (the people, a category of both unity and division). El pueblo operates, Ciccariello-Maher explains, by “allowing us to stitch together many of the identities discussed so far (class, race, and nation) into a multiplicity of overlapping microdialectics” (104). This is a move whose oppositions are inward as much as outward, emerging through the “self-activity and rupture by the (internally) oppressed alongside the (externally) excluded” (121). In regard to el pueblo’s both/and (of both the oppressed and the excluded), Ciccariello-Maher argues that Dussel “situates analectics—the turn toward the Other, the outside, and the beyond, understood in concrete historical terms rather than ethical terms—as a moment in a broader dialectical progression” (104). Against Hegel (and with Fanon), Dussel suggests that the master-slave dialectic is not possible under colonial conditions because the slave disappears from the horizon through death (107). Against Levinas, Dussel refuses abstraction in his insistence on the concrete establishment of the position of the Other—“the paradigmatic case of exteriority is precisely hunger” (111). In this concrete way, Dussel expands a dialectical vision “with exteriority providing not only the foothold for motion but also the leverage to pry open an indeterminate future” (115). This response to exclusion rejects positing inclusion as a “solution” or closure. On the contrary, it foregrounds “the radical breaching and outward expansion of that totality” (207, from p. 111, n. 22).

In chapter five Ciccariello-Maher turns to contemporary Venezuela, where “this dynamic fusion of internal oppositions and decolonial appeal to excluded exteriorities” currently plays out (8). He criticizes Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentric reading of the people as “a closed unity, both homogenous and homogenizing” (124). The colonized cannot simply choose an identity, such as the Multitude, but “are instead condemned to choose among condemnations… the one that will best harness mass struggle” (127). And that chosen identity is el pueblo, a decolonized popular unity, “a unity against, a unity premised on antagonistic rupture” (137), seen in the emergence of Chavismo, committed to subjective combat (with Sorel), grounded in temporality (with Fanon), and expanding toward exteriority (with Dussel) (145).

Just as there is no teleological end of history and no deterministic end to struggle, there is no conclusion per se to his book. Invoking the figure of Frederick Douglass, the final section of Ciccariello-Maher’s book gestures to a time “prior to where [he] began” (153). His title names neither the finished “decolonized” nor the (singular) “dialectic.” Decolonizing Dialectics is active and multiple, rupturing and spiraling page after page. My sense is that, after my above review of his chapters, enumerating a few of my criticisms of his project in the usual way would conclude in a way too petty for the ambitions of the text—a kind of betrayal both of critique in its active ability to demonstrate conceptual limits and possibilities and of dialectics in their open-ended motion that self-consciously takes up particular commitments. “[A] philosophy which privileges the generative effects of social structures can only remain in the contemplative mode for so long before it must transcend itself” (73). The same should be said about the philosopher.