“And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect…”
Another post on the history of the “bourgeoisie” in left-wing thought, this time looking at the the writings of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney. Often treated as a wholesale rejection of Marx, the Black anti-colonial tradition was in fact premised on a patient working through, and a principled thinking against and beyond, the limits of historical materialism.
Cedric Robinson illustrates this point throughout his crucial 1983 work Black Marxism, attending to the various successes and failures of different thinkers in negotiating the Marxist inheritance .
Robinson takes pains to recognize the value of the Marxist project while highlighting the limitations of historical materialism. “There is much to be admired in those who have struggled under the inspiration of Marxism,” Robinson writes. “What such historical spectacles of human endeavor share, of course, is the magnificence of the human spirit: the inextinguishable resolve to refashion society according to some powerful but imperfect moral vision” (xxvii). But the “liberation tradition” was, of course, never limited to the First International or any of its sequels. Undistinguished, we must admit, as political strategists, Marx and Engels have remained guiding lights of the Left because of the forcefulness of their critique of the capitalist mode of production. But they were hardly the first European intellectuals to observe that capitalism is voraciously expoitative: Smith, Ricardo, and Hegel all expressed deep unease with the emergent industrial economy (xxviii). “What was stunning in the writing of Marx and Engels,” Robinson observes, “was not their mere recognition of class struggle but rather their sympathies in that struggle” (xviii).
Such sympathies, however noble, did not suffice to remove certain blinders, and thus Marx selected “European male wage laborers and artisans in the metropoles of Western Europe, Britain, and the United States” as the proper agents of revolution. Here, historical materialism enacted its greatest failure of imagination: “Driven… by the need to achieve the scientific elegance and interpretive economy demanded by theory, Marx consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin” (xxix). “Instead of the archaic globalism of modern capitalist production and exchange,” Robinson laments, “Marx imagined a coherent ordering of things: congruous imperial sites from which cohorts of capitalists cultivated, directed, and dominated satellite societies” (xxviii) “Fully aware of the constant place women and children held in the workforce, Marx still deemed them so unimportant as a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with slave labor and peasants, into the imagined abyss signified by precapitalist, noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation” (xxix). Marx’s errors owed a great deal to “Eurocentrism” and “secular messianism,” but even more significant was Marx’s debt to the tradition of Western philosophy, and in particular Aristotle’s naturalization of slavery (xxix). Given the grim intellectual heritage of the bourgeois West, then, we should not be surprised that even perhaps its most radical self-critic was unable to complete his apostasy, to “traverse the fantasy,” as Lacanians say, to fully recognize his own imbrication in fictions of difference. That’s one reason why we might look to a different genealogy if we’re eager to locate a more genuine reckoning with the bourgeois legacy.
If a Western European style of thought was indeed a powerful determinant of Marx’s selective vision, Robinson asks, might there not be significance in the fact that some of Marx’s most perspicuous heirs and critics have been sons and daughters of “human beings who happened to be slaves”? (xxx). Out of the centuries of resistance to the “violence which instigated and patrolled their slave statuses,” African diasporic radicals forged a unique critique of political economy and sustained unique varieties of revolutionary desire, whether in aesthetic practices from the ring-shout through the blues and jazz, in oral traditions and demotic epistemologies, or in maroon communities and the communist inflections of Black christianity. For the modern thinkers who emerged out of these traditions, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” could never suffice–at least not for very long– as an adequate rendering of the long human struggle for happiness and dignity.
Rereading Césaire, Fanon, and Rodney with an eye to tracking their engagement with the question of the bourgeoisie reveals how vigorously they wrestled with the Marxist tradition, and highlights just how strange it is that their work remains unread (or at least unprocessed) by so many Marxists.
Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, originally published in 1955, might well be the most powerful work of anti-bourgeois polemic ever written.  Born in 1913 in Martinique, Césaire forged a remarkable synthesis of surrealist poetics and Marxist-inflected anticolonial critique that profoundly influenced the radicalism swirling around the 1955 Bandung Conference.
“Europe,” Césaire announces at the outset, “is indefensible.” (31) (Lest yankees think that such a diagnosis lets them off the hook, Césaire takes pains to point out that the “barbarism of Western Europe” had been surpassed by the “barbarism of the United States”) (47). So-called “Western civilization,” the product of “two centuries of bourgeois rule” had proved itself “incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem” (31) Over time, Europe, having constructed itself as the binary opposite of all things “savage,” finally becomes itself more savage than the most fervid imperialist fantasy: “And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss” (36). After the Nazi holocaust, the “very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century” finds that he has a “Hitler inside him” (36). Liberalism’s talk of the “rights of man” is revealed to be “narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and, all things considered, sordidly racist” (37)
The “respectable bourgeois” enrage Césaire, in particular their shoulder shrugging and pleas of ignorance when confronted with evidence of uninterrupted complicity in evil and violence The bourgeoisie, Césaire insists, do not suffer from ignorance. They “read everything” but through a “filter that lets through only what can nourish the thick skin of the bourgeois’s clear conscience” (52) Here are echoes of both Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (a work that proposes a psychic equivalent to the protective skin developed by primitive organisms as an organizing metaphor for the development of his theory of the “death drive”), and Cedric Robinson on the historical irrelevance of “ignorance” as an explanation for racism. And, in prose that might just as easily describe today’s NGO class and development experts: the bourgeoisie persistently “attempt to reduce the most human problems to comfortable, hollow notions,” rendering the victims of colonial brutality “unrecognizable in the realm of pale ratiocinations” (62).
Even the recent example of Nazi barbarity did not prompt genuine self-reflection on the part of the bourgeoisie. Césaire provides endless quotations from French jurists and politicians writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II that demonstrate an unbroken fidelity to racist nationalism and biologism (63). The citizens of the African diaspora, therefore, had to resign themselves to the inevitable, and recognize that “the bourgeoisie is condemned to become every day more snarling, more openly ferocious, more shameless, more summarily barbarous…” (64). “Whether one likes it or not,” Césaire writes, “the bourgeoisie, as a class is condemned to take responsibility for all the barbarism of history, the tortures of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, warmongering and the appeal to the raison d’Etat, racism and slavery, in short everything against which it protested in unforgettable terms at a time when, as the attacking class, it was the incarnation of human progress” (67).
The shock troops of the bourgeoisie are not, however, composed only of Torquemadas and Eli Roths. Among their most effective soldiers are the Kants and Herders, the Bernard Lewises and Niall Fergusons. The bourgeoisie wreaks as much havoc with historiography and philosophy as it does with racks and cattle prods. Césaire quotes the racist Gobineau’s declaration– “The only history is white”– to demonstrate the guiltless ethnocentrism typical of the bourgeois historian (71). Not content only to write non-Europeans out of history, bourgeois historians also delight in fabricating the pasts of its savage Others, the better to rationalize white hegemony. Building to a crescendo, Césaire writes: “And now I ask: what else has bourgeois Europe done? It has undermined civilizations, destroyed countries, ruined nationalities, extirpated ‘the root of diversity.’ No more dikes, no more bulwarks. The hour of the barbarian is at hand. The modern barbarian. The American hour. Violence, excess, waste, mercantilism, bluff, conformism, stupidity, vulgarity, disorder” (76).
Césaire’s friend Frantz Fanon continued the project initiated with the Discourse on Colonialism, forging a similarly bracing critique of the bourgeoisie in The Wretched of the Earth, first published in 1963, two years after his early death in 1961 .
“In its narcissistic monologue,” Fanon writes, “the colonialist bourgeoisie, by way of its academics, had implanted in the minds of the colonized that the essential values–meaning Western values–remain eternal despite all errors attributable to man…” During the struggle for liberation, however, all the “Mediterranean values”: “the triumph of the individual, of enlightenment and Beauty” become “pale, lifeless trinkets,” a “jumble of dead words” (11).
Fanon grapples in particular with questions of “false consciousness”: how might Black radical intellectuals, trained by the Western bourgeoisie in Western bourgeois institutions, overcome this heritage and render themselves of service to anticolonial politics? While the “colonialist bourgeoisie hammered into the colonized mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity, where wealth lies in thought,” experience with “the people during the liberation struggle” leads to the recognition of the falsity of possessive individualism (11).
Throughout The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon builds upon the Marxist theory of bourgeois revolution, but insists that in the underdeveloped countries “a bourgeois phase is out of the question.” (118) In his efforts to explain why this is so, Fanon gives the European bourgeoisie its due, as it were, even while mapping out its many pathologies and crimes:
“The European nations achieved their national unity at a time when the national bourgeoisie had concentrated most of the wealth in their own hands. Shopkeepers and merchants, clerks and bankers monopolized finance, commerce, and science within the national framework. The bourgeoisie represented the most dynamic and prosperous class. Its rise to power enabled it to launch into operations of a crucial nature, such as industrialization, the development of communications, and, eventually, the quest for overseas outlets” (53).
Because the leadership of anticolonial struggles in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas so often devolved to the “young national bourgeoisie,” great urgency animated the question of how a transition from bourgeois to proletarian revolution might play out in the context of agrarian or peasant-dominated states. Fanon clearly frames this question in Marxist terms, borrowing Marx’s unfortunate prejudices against peasants (history’s “sack of potatoes”) in his analysis of revolutionary telos:
“The history of bourgeois revolutions and the history of proletarian revolutions have demonstrated that the peasant masses often represent a curb on revolution. In the industrialized countries the peasant masses are generally the least politically conscious, the least organized, as well as the most anarchistic elements. They are characterized by a series of features–individualism, lack of discipline, the love of money, fits of rage, and deep depression–defining an objectively reactionary behavior” (66)
If the peasantry, for Fanon, are tragically reactionary, the bourgeoisie of the developing world are farcically bumbling. While the “nationalist bourgeoisie” monopolizes a certain swath of symbolic capital, it is also cash-poor, and thus not really a bourgeoisie at all. Instead, it presents the paradoxical spectacle of a bourgeoisie that, lacking the material basis of its class status, doubles down on self-presentation and ostentation, turning into “a bourgeois bourgeoisie that is dismally, inanely, and cynically bourgeois” (99). Fanon suggests that the proper task of the “nationalist bourgeoisie” is the renunciation of its status as an “instrument of capital” and dedication to the “revolutionary capital which the people represent” (98-99).
Such transformations are rare in history. Instead, “nationalist bourgeoisies” tend to dive headlong into fetishes for local culture and calls for nationalization of industry, the latter of which Fanon sees as a ruse to transfer into indigenous hands the privileges inherited from the colonial period (100). The “nationalist bourgeoisie” thus discover its role as “conveyor belt for capitalism” (100). Even in this limited capacity, however, the “nationalist bourgeoisie” suffers from an identity crisis, lacking the “dynamic, pioneering aspect, the inventive, discoverer-of-new-worlds aspect” of Europe’s capitalist class (101). Imitative, derivative, neurotic, the middleman of the Third World “mimics the Western bourgeoisie in its negative and decadent aspects without having accomplished the initial phase of exploration and invention that are the assets of this Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances” (101).
Here Fanon explicitly levels a moral critique: the bourgeoisie of the developing world have jumped straight to decadence, indulgence, kitsch. And in this cultural world-making, the “national bourgeoisie” gets considerable help from Western counterparts “who happen to be tourists enamored of exoticism, hunting, and casinos” (101).
Fanon emphasizes a central contradiction of Western racism: while he declares some humans genetically inadequate, the bourgeois racist also tries to maintain his “discourse on human dignity” (109). “Western bourgeois racism toward the ‘nigger’ and the ‘towelhead’ is a racism of contempt–a racism that minimizes. But the bourgeois ideology that proclaims all men to be essentially equal manages to remain consistent with itself by urging the subhuman to rise to the level of Western humanity that it embodies” (110)
The charismatic leader of the “national bourgeoisie,” on the other hand, refuses even the condescending developmentalism of Western racists (114). Reifying a certain superficial gloss on “native” culture, “national bourgeoisies” seek to keep their polities out of historical time.
Moving from prescription to description, Fanon urges struggle against the “national bourgeoisie”:
“The national bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries should not be combated because it threatens to curb the overall, harmonious development of the nation. It must be resolutely opposed because literally it serves no purpose. Mediocre in its winnings, in its achievements and its thinking, this bourgeoisie attempts to mask its mediocrity by ostentatious projects for individual prestige, chromium-plated American cars, vacations on the French Riviera and weekends in neon-lit nightclubs” (120).
Walter Rodney, born March 13, 1942 in what was then British Guiana, continued Césaire and Fanon’s work of critically examining the bourgeois sources of racial ideology, while extending their frame to encompass the new realities of Third World liberation movements. Rodney was murdered in Guyana in 1980, likely at the hands of the fine folks of the US Central Intelligence Agency. His 1972 work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa laid out an extremely influential account of the political economy of European racism and the rise of “racial capitalism”: along with the works of Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Manning Marable, Rodney set much of the intellectual agenda of the post-Vietnam War antiracist/anticapitalist Left .
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is suffused with anti-bourgeois feeling. Rodney may be the only writer ever to have woven a ding at the bourgeoisie into a book’s acknowledgments: “But, contrary to the fashion in most prefaces, I will not add that ‘all mistakes and shortcomings are entirely my responsibility.’ That is sheer bourgeois subjectivism. Responsibility in matters of these sorts is always collective…” (vii)
Like Fanon, Rodney engages with the Marxist developmentalist/bourgeois revolution tradition, accepting some of its premises and challenging others. While Marx himself “laid great emphasis on sources of overseas capital accumulation,” many of his followers, in the fashion of “bourgeois scholars,” continued to write about “phenomena such as the Industrial Revolution in England without once mentioning the European slave trade as a factor in primary accumulation of capital.” Even Maurice Dobb and Eric Hobsbawm “concentrated on examining the evolution of capitalism out of feudalism inside Europe, with only marginal reference to the massive exploitation of Africans, Asians, and American Indians” (90).
But Marxist readers who tacitly assume, on the evidence of such criticisms, that writers like Rodney were anti-Marxists would do well to re-read passages such as the one that follows, and consider why it is that we are more likely to think of, for example, Poulantzas, Therborn, and Roemer–and not “Rodney”–as the preeminent “1970s Marxists”:
“As soon as the first capitalists appeared in European society, an incentive was created for further development through the attitude of this class. Never before in any human society had a group of people seen themselves consciously functioning in order to make the maximum profit out of production. To fulfill their objective of acquiring more and more capital, capitalists took a greater interest in the laws of science which could be harnessed in the form of machinery to work and make profit on their behalf. At the political level, capitalism was also responsible for most of the features which today are referred to as Western Democracy. In abolishing feudalism, the capitalists insisted on parliaments, constitutions, freedom of the press. These too can be considered as development. However, the peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profits from the human labor that always lies behind the machines. That contradicts other facets of development, especially viewed from the standpoint of those who suffered and still suffer to make capitalist achievements possible. This latter group are the majority of mankind. To advance, they must overthrow capitalism, and that is why at the moment capitalism stands in the path of further human social development. To put it another way, the social (class) relations of capitalism are now outmoded, just as slave and feudal relations became outmoded in their time” (10)
Recognizing the incipient crisis of profitability with which we are all now intimately familiar, Rodney notes that “Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’…” (10). Like Fanon, Rodney sees a “vicious white racism” as a contradictory byproduct of capitalist development, an “irrationality” as structurally situated as planned obsolescence and systemic inequality: “However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalizations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalized in every sphere from theology to biology” (88).
And like Fanon, Rodney sees this contradictory character of bourgeois racism (and its manifestations as colonialism and imperialism) as a ticking time bomb within the capitalist edifice. For example, at the level of knowledge production, bourgeois writers are continually forced to put on blinders and to tie their own hands. Political pressures and institutional norms force bourgeois writers and intellectuals to adopt a narrow, technocratic, definition of development. No mention can be made of the “exploitation of the majority,” nor of the “social relations of production or of classes,” to say nothing of imperialism as an expression of capitalist tendencies (12-13). Like Césaire, Rodney takes pains not to spare the US from his assault on bourgeois racism (which might be conventionally read as an anti-European polemic): “if ‘underdevelopment ‘ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A., which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder” (14).
As with Césaire and Fanon, Rodney hones in on the peculiar bourgeois relation to writing history as a tool of domination, and on the bourgeois addiction to selectively granting and taking away history from others. The “bourgeois economist,” Rodney observes, “does not give a history of exploitation to explain underdevelopment; rather puts forward a biblical explanation!” The Bible tells us so: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” By this stroke of scriptural sleight-of-hand, underdevelopment is recast as divine providence. Thus, to the bourgeois observer, “the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the genetic backwardness of the race of black Africans.” Even those “experts” who avoid outright racism cannot avoid other pitfalls of bourgeois thought, the most common of which is the confusion of consequences for causes (21).
In response to this accumulated arrogance, Rodney flips the script, returning the bourgeois gaze: “The moment that the topic of the pre-European African past is raised, many individuals are concerned for various reasons to know about the existence of African ‘civilizations.’ This is not the context in which to evaluate the so-called civilizations of Europe. It is enough to note the behavior of European capitalists from the epoch of slavery through colonialism, fascism, and genocidal wars in Asia and Africa. Such barbarism causes suspicion to attach to the use of the word ‘civilization’ to describe Western Europe and North America” (34).
Out of such inversions of bourgeois logic, Rodney underlines one of Fanon’s most important (and least understood) points: that development, understood in Hegelian terms, always includes moments in which the erasure of the subjectivity of the Other in the name of domination returns–like a “terrific boomerang effect”–to kick the foundations out from under the feet of the bullies, the tyrants, the viceroys, the torturers. Rodney writes:
“In the short tun, European racism seemed to have done Europeans no harm, and they used those erroneous ideas to justify their further domination of non-European peoples in the colonial epoch. But the international proliferation of bigoted and unscientific racist ideas was bound to have its negative consequences in the long run. When Europeans put millions of their brothers (Jews) into ovens under the Nazis, the chickens were coming home to roost. Such behavior inside of ‘democratic’ Europe was not as strange as it is sometimes made out to be. There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans” (89).
We should note that Césaire, Fanon, and Rodney’s anti-bourgeois polemics do not correspond to any veneration of a putative revolutionary subject, or of some angelic subaltern fated by history to expropriate the expropriators. They are anti-Manichaean: their worldview is not premised on binary antagonisms and moral absolutes. Here, Brent Hayes Edwards’s invocation of Edouard Glissant’s notion of Black diasporic intellectuals as specialists in the “detour” is very useful. Glissant, Edwards notes, argues that “populations formed through forced exportation and exploitation are traumatically wrenched away from their habitual social forms and into a specific kind of colonial context: not one formed by hostile incursion into a homeland, but one of ‘uprooting.'” While one response to such trauma is the diasporic longing for “return”–with its “obsession with the One” and a certain identitarian conservatism– a more radical response is the “detour,” a “turning away… from such an obsession with roots and singular genealogy.” “Detour,” Glissant writes, “is the ultimate resort of a population whose domination by an Other is concealed: it then must search elsewhere for the principle of domination, which is not evident in the country itself: because the mode of domination (assimilation) is the best of camouflages, because the materiality of the domination (which is not only exploitation, which is not only poverty, which is not only underdevelopment, but actually the complete eradication of the economic entity) is not directly visible ” (Glissant, in Edwards, 22-23). Out of such “detours,” an anti-bourgeois politics becomes something more than mere ressentiment: an intimation, perhaps, of how we might try to remake the world.
 Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, originally published 1983, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
 Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (translated by Joan Pinkham): originally published 1955, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (translated by Richard Philcox): originally published 1963, New York: Grove Press, 2004.
 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1973.
 Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.