Paige Arthur, Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre

(London: Verso, 2010).

Paige Arthur’s book chronicles the trajectory of Sartre’s thinking with respect to the wave of anti-colonialist movements that swept the world in the wake of World War II, in both the colonies and the metropoles. While she wishes to assess the role of the intellectual in this process, and the historical meaning of intellectual opposition to colonialism, she instead succeeds only in writing a history of Sartre, or rather, of one dimension of Sartre’s thought. Sartre engaged himself in opposition to French colonialism in Vietnam and Algeria well in advance of most others in France. He also championed the cause of African independence in general. And he wrote extensively about the role of the intellectual in society. Arthur’s book documents this eloquently and in detail. But she wishes to go further than that, and understand Sartre’s meaning for history, as an engaged person in it, in light of the philosophical concepts he himself developed at the time. Unfortunately, she is not a sufficiently good reader of Sartre to accomplish that conjunction. She ends up with a chronicle of Sartre’s texts and a strange and somewhat misplaced project of her own.

In form, the book establishes a selected set of political moments in Sartre’s life, grounded in specific writings, in terms of which she situates Sartre’s analysis of racism and colonialism. Three texts in particular are canonical for her: Anti-Semite and Jew (ASJ), Black Orpheus, and Sartre’s analysis of racism in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (CDR). Other texts are discussed against these three, in order to position them within Sartre’s development of an anti-colonialist politics from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, and to integrate that with his philosophical thinking. But the richness of Sartre’s philosophy seems to slip from her grasp. For instance, she oddly substitutes the term “decolonization” for the anti-colonialism of his time. The difference is that anti-colonialism refers to the antagonism between the colonized seeking independence and the colonialism that refuses it, whereas decolonization refers to the subsequent struggle that the formerly colonized must wage within themselves – to overcome the internalized effects, both individual and social, of the colonial relation. Where death and defeat would accompany failure in the first, cooptation and debt would principally mark failure in the second. I will return to this historical distinction and Arthur’s shift of meanings below. But first, let me say something about what she misses in the three texts she has chosen as canonical.

With respect to ASJ, Arthur focuses on the bad faith of the racist or anti-semite, who seeks solidity for him/herself through his/her antagonistic attitude toward another. “Bad faith” is how Sartre characterizes one’s choice to abandon the absolute freedom of one’s consciousness – to give up the openness of one’s choices of who to be by allowing those choices to be made by others, by one’s social position, or by a given ideology. In Being and Nothingness, he elaborates the relation between consciousness and situation as that between freedom and social constraints. Consciousness is absolutely free because it can choose itself as it wishes, though it cannot enact itself as it wishes because social constraints limit its ability to act – a form of unfreedom. For Sartre, the absolute freedom of consciousness is the necessary condition for there to be an awareness of unfreedom or constraint in the first place. It is because one is free that one can apprehend unfreedom in one’s situation. One chooses the meaning one gives to social structures. Bad faith names a choice to refuse one’s freedom, and to substitute the imposition of social structure and constraint as the foundation of one’s consciousness. One then enacts the structures given by society as absolute. When one does this in terms of extant relations of domination over others, one gains membership in a socius of domination that relieves one of the necessity to be free. One is entrapped in a “materiality” and solidity without responsibility. For Sartre, to choose anti-semitism (or white supremacy) is to live that dominance and its performance as if one’s being were “set in stone” (a metaphor Arthur likes and returns to).

Arthur understands this part. But it is only half the story. Though racism (or anti-semitism) reflects bad faith, there nevertheless remains the response of the other to one’s derogations, to the performance of one’s racism. This response spans a spectrum from acquiescence to resistance and rebellion. Arthur, through a one-sided focus on racism’s bad faith, reduces this relation to a dyad of dominance and submission (14). By leaving out the dimension of resistance, her subsequent emphasis on a “complicity of the oppressor and the oppressed” confuses the ethical with the ontological (27). Arthur suggests that Sartre never explains how consciousness can be “both free and constituted” (17), though she had actually indicated where he does so a few pages earlier. Thus, she doesn’t see that her dyad hypostatizes the other, in a further reduction of Sartre’s thinking. This is important because her self-proclaimed project is to theorize “the possibility of collective otherness” (9). It is as if she wished to reduce those subjected to racism to submission in order to theorize their collective condition.

When she considers Black Orpheus, she performs a similar reduction. Here, Sartre is introducing an anthology of works by African writers associated with the earlier “negritude” movement. The goal of both that movement and the anthology is an escape from the determination of the colonized subjectivity by the colonizer. For Arthur, Sartre saw the volume simply as one of negation of the colonial situation, without a transcendence (which would entail a new subjectivity) of the situation negated (38). But for Sartre, the volume represented the “look” of the colonized, an act of rendering Europe an object precisely for an emergent subjectivity. As Sartre analyzes the “look” of the other phenomenologically, he identifies the moment wherein one apprehends the other as a subject, and not an object, because one apprehends oneself as the object of the other’s look. This is different from attributing subjectivity to the other, as does colonialism. One apprehends the other’s subjectivity by becoming what the other sees and thus knows (as an event). When the colonized return the look of the colonialist, it marks the moment of retrieval of sovereign subjectivity, turning the colonist into an object for both. It constitutes an archetypal moment of anti-colonialist resistance and rebellion, breaking the hierarchy imposed by the foreign power. It is thus part of the liberatory framework of the African revolutions then in progress. But Arthur casts it within a reductionist dyad of “human and subhuman,” a dyad Sartre had coined to indicate the power relation by which racism prohibits the returned look. For Sartre, that dyad describes the situational framework by which the racist or colonialist constrains the others, but not the ontological possibilities still open for the dominated. The problem for the dominated is not how to overcome their subhumanity but how to overthrow the social structure that foists it on them.

Finally, in CDR, whereas Sartre deals with colonialism as a system, and analyzes the structure of racism within that system, Arthur reduces that system to “the division of settlers and natives into perceptual groups of humans and subhumans; the settlers’ racism; the participation of the natives in their own oppression; … the capacity for genuine group action (‘counter-violence’) on the part of the natives” (81). She says this just after quoting Sartre saying that the “relation between oppressors and oppressed was, from beginning to end, a struggle” (CDR: 733). Thus, she breaks the relation into divided group acts, whose essential character is complicity. That is, she transforms the relation of struggle against hierarchical domination into a “bond of alterity” (her own term) between serial groups interacting on a horizontal plane (87). The problem with this notion is its assertion of parity between oppressor and the oppressed. But for Sartre, racism forms the core of colonialist domination, as a structure without reciprocity and without parity. Sartre recognizes that there is a situational complicity between the oppressor and the oppressed, but the pretence to parity can only be in bad faith.

By reducing Sartre’s account in this fashion, Arthur dismisses what is at the very core of CDR, his account of the group in fusion. This concept expresses his theorization of the transformation of the serial collective into a collective subject as actor in history. The entirety of CDR is aimed at addressing how people can collectively become the subject of history, as the makers of history, where history is one of the constraints on their freedom. And it analyzes the dynamics by which collective subjectivities regress back to seriality. For Arthur, the group is merely a form of “revolutionary upsurge,” a facet of “revolutionism” as an historical category (91).

The rest of her account is basically historical. She gives a synopsis of Sartre’s adopting the cause of the Algerians against French colonialism, his outrage at the assassination of Lumumba, his refusal to lecture in the US after the escalation of the Vietnam War, his proposal for a revolutionary ethics in the Rome lectures of 1964, and his participation in the Russell War Crimes Tribunal on US genocide in Vietnam. As a history, it hits most of the high points. But as an attempt to address the role of the intellectual philosophically in the struggle against oppression, it is fairly flat.

Perhaps this has to do with Arthur’s misunderstanding of “decolonization.” Decolonization is a contemporary term for what still today faces those societies that sought to liberate themselves from colonialism right after World War II. From the Chinese revolution until the end of the war in Vietnam, from Harlem to Soweto and from Cuba to Mozambique, liberation (of peoples, cultures, and political entities) was the kernel of anti-colonialist thought. But these societies often faced a post-independence continuation at their own hands of the hierarchical structures implanted by colonialism, along with an internalization of a sense of inferiority, and a structural vulnerability to neo-colonialist exploitation (Euro-American control of the post-colonial global south through privatization, debt servitude, and structural adjustment programs). It was precisely this internalized sense of inferiority of the colonized that the IMF and World Bank played on to overturn the independence of former colonies by financial means. Post-colonial critique dedicated itself to analyzing this. One reason perceived for the regression in those countries was an emulation of or obeisance to European structures (which Fanon had warned against). Decolonization, after the 1980s and 1990s, refers to rooting out that internalized sense of inferiority, the seeming necessity to copy European civilization, the dependence on hierarchical domination at the hands of one’s compatriots which was the true corruption of independence. To confuse decolonization (the rooting out of internalized oppression) with the liberatory ethos of the earlier era is to confuse subsequent internal cultural transformation with earlier open class warfare against foreign domination.

Arthur understands that the anti-colonial process of the 50s to the 70s was ultimately a failed project. But she leaves out the IMF and the World Bank. By inverting the historical development, by putting decolonization before the neo-colonialism it was developed to contest,she tends to hypostatize the post-colonial condition, which she then conceives of as a “collective otherness.” What is then also left out is the other half of the theme of decolonization, the need to decolonize the colonialist mind in the Euro-American societies, to eliminate its racism, its white supremacy, its anti-immigrant chauvinism, and its support for military interventionism. That is where the true power of the decolonization critique has been aimed.

In sum, the book is of historical interest, as a narrative of a single philosopher’s political journey, but of limited philosophical interest. Arthur sees that Sartre has been to a large extent excluded from the canon of post-colonial thinkers (post-colonial in the contemporary sense), and in this she is correct. She wishes that her book would rectify this exclusion to a degree. And I would concur. But she would have made a better case had it been informed by a better understanding of Sartre.

Reviewed by Steve Martinot
San Francisco State University

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