Why Leftism – All the Way to Anarchism – is the Last Colonial Project

Marx's greatest achievement

External obstacles are now only technological, and only internal rivalries remain. A world market extends to the ends of the earth before passing into the galaxy: even the skies become horizontal. This is not a result of the [Ancient] Greek endeavor but a resumption, in another form and with other means, on a scale hitherto unknown, which nonetheless relaunches the combination for which the Greeks took the initiative – democratic imperialism, colonizing democracy.

The European can, therefore, regard himself [sic], as the Greek did, as not one psychosocial type among others but Man par excellence, and with much more expansive force and missionary zeal than the Greek.

-Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 1991

Western culture – which is effectively global – is a culture of materialism and scientific rationality – grounded, of course, in the capitalism that guides and shapes our daily lives. To be more specific, Western culture is Spinozian – for Spinoza successfully concluded that the mind and matter were the same substance, thereby presciently defeating (think neurons and neurotransmitters) the mind/body dualism of Descartes which was the last defense of the ‘immortal soul’ of organized religion – and Marxian – for Marx transformed the philosophic dialectics of Hegel into an empirical sociological system that reflected what was happening in the sciences around him.

Both Spinoza and Marx were expressing the logical, radical endpoints of the Western Enlightenment that was generated by the arrival of capitalism – Spinoza, described by Jonathan Israel as “the first major figure of the Radical Enlightenment,” and Marx as its last.

In 1674 Baruch Spinoza wrote:

“Men [sic] are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this: that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Therefore, the idea of their freedom is simply the ignorance of the cause of their actions. As to their saying that human actions depend on the will, these are mere words without any corresponding idea. For none of them knows what the will is and how it moves the body, and those who do boast otherwise and make up stories of dwelling places and habitations of the soul provoke either ridicule or disgust.” (Take that, Descartes!)

Spinoza believed that true wisdom lay in the aligning of one’s intelligence with the immutable truth of the material universe by understanding mathematical proofs. As Israel writes:

“He gives the example of the earth’s rotundity. Only science can prove the earth is round. One may well not believe it is round until shown the proofs. But it is impossible for someone who grasps the proofs to doubt or oppose them sincerely… Hence Spinoza’s conception of truth, and the criterion for judging what is true, is ‘mathematical logic,’ and mathematical rationality universally applied provides, from Spinoza to Marx, the essential link between the Scientific Revolution and the tradition of radical thought.”

In his notes for a critique of the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach Marx famously wrote: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This line was never a simple urging of philosophers to ‘get active’ for the good of things, it meant that philosophers had to abandon the world of ‘universal absolutes’ (think Plato’s theory of Forms, or Ideas) and work within the social and environmental processes that were actually in existence. If they did this, Marx believed, they would no longer be ‘idle philosophers,’ they would be scientists.

Echoing Spinoza, Marx writes:

“In direct contrast to German philosophy [or ‘Idealism,’ better written as ‘Idea-ism,’ a development within Plato’s theory of Ideas] which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.”

Engels further explains how, as Marx put it, ‘philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses [has, in fact, lost] its medium of existence’:

“While natural science up to the end of the last century [1799] was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things, in our century it is essentially a systematizing science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great [Spinozian/monist] whole… [so it is with] the Marxist conception of history [which derives its proof] from history itself. This conception, however, puts an end to philosophy in the realm of history, just as the dialectical conception of nature [‘a science of processes’] makes all-natural [traditional] philosophy both unnecessary and impossible. It is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts.”

≈was not to ‘predict’ or describe communism: it was his thorough and convincing analysis of modern life. The legacy of his insights into how the economy works and how people are apparently constructed in any society is now hardwired into all our institutions and social policy. The mirror he held up to his own time, which is still relevant for ours, was powerful because what it revealed was what everyone already knew but hadn’t yet expressed. His dialectics only followed what physical and social science was already doing. Westerners had become materialists before he told them that that was what they were – they only realized it when he observed it. The rationalism in society that he wished to build on had been generated by the new economic circumstances, it just took his writings to give it a more solid theoretical grounding. But he didn’t quite realize the monster he was making even bigger. It could only now be obvious to any enlightened European that – apart from whether private ownership of industry and land is a good or bad thing – they were held back by the persistent irrationality and ignorance of ‘the masses’… not only ‘at home’ but globally.

We can see that Spinoza and Marx thought they were witnessing the advancement – through science – of a rational society, and they wanted to see this promise come into full existence. But there is another important aspect. Both Spinoza and Marx, following science again, were ‘monist’ – they believed in the ‘oneness’ of the world and all its workings. So, at the heart of radical thought – as worked out through the Western Enlightenment – is the idea that there is no mind/body dualism, there are no supernatural beings, there are no miracles: everything can be explained by science and rational thinking… that is, Enlightenment science, and Enlightenment rationality.

There were, as Jonathan Israel documents, two sides to the Enlightenment – a moderate one (eg, Voltaire, Adam Ferguson) and a radical one (eg, Diderot, Paine). The moderate side was conservative and not so adamant that all falsehoods entertained the world over – by the poor and the foreign – should be actively quashed. Interestingly (you’ve gotta laugh…), it was the radical side that sought to spread full Enlightenment to all the peoples of the globe.

As Israel notes, the radical philosophe Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger argued that, “reason, and law founded on reason, should be the only sovereign over mortals.” I think that this declaration – on the level of ideas – is the precursor to Marx’s ‘materialist’ declaration that “the veil” of mystification “is not removed” until the reproduction of existence “stands under [the] conscious and planned control” of all. Both are global projects, but Marx’s appears to have a more virtuous and more practical strategy attached to it. His plan goes beyond simply stomping around the world saving the poor and ‘the savages’ from the own ignorance. He thinks they should be an empowered part of the process. (On how ‘empowerment’ is a double-edged sword now routinely utilized by social agencies the world over, see below.)

Marx’s strategy is more radical than Boulanger’s because it is based on the ideal of the attainment of egalitarian democracy, that is, communism (Frédéric Lordon: “another name for the communist life could be radical democracy”). In this context, Boulanger’s formula looks like it could simply be an evangelism of Western Radical Enlightenment values, whereas Marx’s formula appears more ‘scientific’. But as it turned out, both systems of enlightenment were imperialist. Boulanger and Marx were, of course, conscious of the fact that the rationality they were exporting to the poor and ‘the savage’ originated in Europe, but they weren’t aware that their visions amounted – for the rest of the world – as simply an altering of the European colonial project. Both strategies seek the establishment of one rational and harmonious world.

(By-the-way, this interpretation of Spinoza’s ideas does not take into account the investigations of Deleuze and Guattari into the notion of ‘the One’ or ‘the plane of immanence,’ or the question of whether Marx turned Spinoza’s ‘immanence’ into another ‘transcendentalism.’ For now, it is enough to touch on how Spinoza’s philosophy has come down to us, rather than the possibility of its misinterpretation.)

The notion of the world being one interconnected thing – which is what ‘science’ tells us it is – and that people are a part of this interconnection rather than a species that somehow exists above the world – connected more to ‘God’ than to the earth – is indeed a sound one, and one shared by Indigenous peoples. But this message consistently becomes a death knell for Indigenous cultures that resist the ‘modern’ world – because when two properly distinct cultures come to live side by side in one community then one of those cultures always dies.

In countries where there is an ongoing government-funded and Indigenous-supported process of ‘reconciliation’ between the colonizer culture and the colonized culture there appears not to be some kind of meeting in the middle but smoothing out of difference in the favour of the colonizing culture. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write: “Reconciliation is about rescuing settler normalcy, about rescuing a settler future.”

And as Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash write in their critique of ‘Development,’ ‘Human Rights,’ and ‘The Global Project’: “Cultures are incommensurable – a condition which seems clearly uncomfortable for those accustomed to extrapolating their own perception of reality on others.”

Another work that challenges the ‘development’ industry is ‘Participation: The New Tyranny?’ (2001) in which Heiko Henkel and Roderick Stirrat question the ‘participatory’ nature of rural development projects around the world – particularly those that go under the aegis of ‘Participatory Rural Appraisal’ or its offshoots. They write: “the attempt to empower people through the projects envisaged and implemented by the practitioners of the new orthodoxy [reflexive and empowering research methodologies] is always an attempt, however, benevolent, to reshape the personhood of the participants. It is in this sense that we argue that ‘empowerment’ is tantamount to what Foucault calls subjection.”

This is the reality of the situation for Indigenous peoples. The only way out of the (often dishonestly presumed) poverty and helplessness created by the global economic system – according to every entrepreneur, educationalist, or far-left political activist – is to change who they are.

The most perfect expression of the ideals of the Radical Enlightenment is the idea of genuine communism, or anarchism – a world ‘government’ run by the people (all enlightened) that would be a radical, or direct, as opposed to representational democracy. Such an expression is the endpoint of the colonial project of the Western Enlightenment: it is scientific and mathematical rationality for a global population that has abandoned ‘irrationality’ and all ‘false consciousness.’

There is more, of course. The Left – all the way to the anarchists – pushes multiculturalism (cultural relativism) and the notion of ‘universal human rights.’ But these are just two more suffocating and dishonest facets of European colonization. As Esteva and Prakash write: “So it comes to pass, more and more, that under the benign banner of human rights, indigenous and other non-modern communities suffer unprecedented forms of oppression, of suffering and power abuses.” See, for example, John Pilger’s film, Utopia.

Way back in 1998 Esteva and Prakash were exposing the truth behind the slogan, ‘Think globally, act locally’: “The universality of human rights…constitutes the moral justification behind “think global.” […] Modernizers and post-modernizers alike assert that global thinking is superior to local thinking. Equally clear, for them, local thinking is limited, parochial and backward.”

And we should think about what ‘multiculturalism’ really is without falling into right-wing populist nonsense or the strange and vehemently pro-civilization rantings of Leftist contrarians (see Trevor Phillips et al in Spiked-Online). Esteva and Prakash write: “Western monoculturalism [is] now cosmeticized and disguised as ‘multiculturalism’.”

Everyone on the planet has the right to the hollowed-out existence of a Westernized wage-slave… whether they like it or not.

Communism is the logical endpoint of the Radical Enlightenment – the logical arc from Spinoza to Marx – and it relies on all peoples passing through the fire (see Georg Lukacs) of wage slavery. But communism has never actually been actually realized, and maybe it can’t be in a mass society… maybe the best we can do, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau advised, is to continue to make the best of a bad job. He was not a millenarian who thought that the ‘garden of Eden’ – or communism – could be returned to or created on earth. He knew he was a slave of society who was unable to break his chains, but he also suggested that we could all persist – as Greta Thunberg, for example, appears to be doing – in trying to keep the bastards honest:

“As for men like me, whose passions have forever destroyed their original simplicity, who can no longer feed on grass and acorns, nor get by without laws and chiefs […], they will scrupulously obey the laws and the men who are their authors and ministers; [though they will also] animate the zeal of these worthy chiefs by showing them without fear or flattery the greatness of their task and the rigor of their duty.” (One must understand the irony in this passage: Rousseau was trying to get his work published in an environment where it was a hanging offense to argue his radical ideas, hence: ‘scrupulously obey,’ and ‘worthy chiefs.’)

The striving for the goals of Radical Enlightenment – the project of the entire Left – is essentially and effectively, for the rest of the world, a continuation of European colonization.

Western Civilisation – and the Left (even unto the anarchists) is a staunch promoter of its fruits – is driven by a unifying and expansionist imperative that is ethnocidal. Only ethnocide – the systematic diminishment and eradication of the genuine differences in the cultures of other groups (even under the banner of ‘multiculturalism’) – can bring global homogeneity. As Tuck and Yang observe above: “Reconciliation is about rescuing settler normalcy, about rescuing a settler future.”

Pierre Clastres is an anthropologist who died young in 1977. He had figured out the fearful symmetry of the universalization of European values and he recognized the greater humanity of ‘the savages’ that he encountered, compared to the hollowed-out, educated Westerners of whom he was one. He pointed out that ‘primitive’ societies were organized ‘centrifugally’ in order to maintain their autonomy, as opposed to modern civilization, which is organized ‘centripetally’: to create a universal homogeneity in service of the Economy and the European values that support it. These values are daily delivered militarily and, as Esteva and Prakash observe above, through the agendas of human rights and multiculturalism. Anyway, to bring this short foray into the nature of modern leftism/colonialism back to its start point – his writings were in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari. Clastres wrote: “Savages want the multiplication of the multiple.” They want difference, they want ‘the Other’ – they do not want ‘the One,’ they do not want the same.

In 1971 Clastres wrote of the Yanomami, and remember that they are still here, still struggling against the ethnocide being brought in on successive waves from Europe:

“A thousand years of wars, a thousand years of celebrations! That is my wish for the Yanomami. They are the last of the besieged. A mortal shadow is being cast on all sides… And afterward? Perhaps we will feel better once the final frontier of this ultimate freedom has been broken. Perhaps we will sleep without waking a single time… Some day, then, oil derricks around the chabunos, diamond mines in the hillsides, police on the paths, boutiques on the riverbanks… Harmony everywhere.”

Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: contrahistorical@gmail.com 

CounterPunch Magazine Archive

Read over 400 magazine and newsletter back issues here

Support CounterPunch

Make a tax-deductible monthly or one-time donation and enjoy access to our Subscriber Area.  Donate Now

Support our evolving Subscriber Area and enjoy access to all Subscribers content.  Subscribe