National rights and the decolonial gaze

Submitted by SJW on 8 August, 2018 - 11:25 Author: Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar replies to Sean Matgamna’s article “Changing the culture of the left” (Solidarity 469). For Sean's reply click here. More debate on the Right of Return here.

Sean Matgamna attracts our gaze as he conjectures on “the whole truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.

Alice in Wonderland, a fabled figure of fiction, is a subject of his piece (Solidarity 469) and as we know, when luncheoning with the Mad Hatter, she divined that what we call truth might not be all that it seems. Conman Bolshevism is indubitably one amidst a multitude of truth subjects.

“Hostility to the Palestinians and see the Hebrew nation as superior and its rights as more important”, Sean avers, is the target of our dispute. Alice would perhaps retort that “in the kingdom of the blind, the looking-glass is useless”. In the kingdom of today’s modern Labour Party, Matgamna’s neo-Zionist varifocals lead down the blind alley that “the second most terrible “racist” crime of the 20th century was the vengeful driving-west of 13 million Germans at the end of the war, with the death of perhaps half a million of them.”

Settlized bodies negotiate betwixt and between the interstitial, spatial, temporally and indeed tempurally subjectivated affects bequeathed by colonial narrata. Mad Hatter-like looking glasses distort and distend these narrata through the colonial gaze. As one proverb in my own ancestral homeland teaches us: “the poor man looks at his reflection in the water; the average man looks at his reflection in the glass; the wise man looks at his reflection in the eyes of his sons”.

Islam and its view of desires, the body – the subject, and her sons – have long held sway in the land I call home. Long into humanity’s future, the historian of racialized (and conversely, racializing) bodies will wonder if his, her or, indeed, their contemplation of the phenomenology of systemic, institutional and epistemic racisms took proper account of this racism’smanifold violences.

Historiographies of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) will surely account for the quality and quantity of this debate, progressing across the letters pages of recent issues. As Sean himself generously notes, this “discussion [has been] good”. Self-care aside, I more than anyone feel the responsibility to the readers of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty to sink my teeth into the meat of the issue and discern whether it is, indeed, halal, or kosher.

Devouring these flesh-like meats is, of course, only part of the Mad Hatter’s luncheon. Our beef in this epistolary exchange is, here as on so many other occasions, truly a question of determining the Self. National liberation is, as one Trier-born friend of ours might have had cause to remark, the sigh of the oppressed, the desire in a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. Each subject-position in this exchange must be rooted in, and founded on, this foundational reality.

The unmissable conclusion of all of Sean’s oeuvre when it comes to apportioning self-determination is quite simply that “there are no good and bad peoples”. Hitler-led German settlers in Poland, white South Africans, Northern Irish Protestants, Australians, and Zionists in the West Bank are not mere bogeymen: for my correspondent all of these, too, are peoples with national rights. Occupation does not, he insists, produce eternal legacies of guilt: the UIster Scot like the Catholic, the Israeli like the Palestinian, has through torments and tragedies also carved out his claim, his right, his place in the world.

Uncompromising though these claims may be, the fact that there are not good and bad peoples does not deny the difference between self-determination for a people and stolen booty. Self-determination could hardly be said to apply to, say, Canada and its so-called peoples, after they themselves physically eliminated the First Nations precisely in order to create an artificial white majority in that very land. Arming the aboriginal peoples of Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and such like is, in this sense, nothing but a prerequisite for an equality of national freedoms.

Nobody will be more aware of this than a future historian looking back on the states founded by the British Empire in the eighteenth century but which look increasingly untenable in the twenty-first. Doubtless some will raise qualms, but today’s historian does not suggest that the labour movement’s support for the struggle to end white South Africa, or the historical dead-end that was Rhodesia, was mistakenly based on contrasting “good” and “bad” peoples. So, too, can temporary totems to regimes of whiteness in Australia, Canada, Chile, and New Zealand be seen in this same perspective.

Under Sean’s logic Canada is nothing but an eternal fact, a state of stasis. Pity whoever would suggest that the mighty, the powerful, the so-self-assured behemoths of today are not, in fact, destined to maintain their rule forever!

Of course, not every national situation, every relationship between colonised and coloniser, is doomed to be resolved in the same brutal means that asserted themselves so dramatically in the twentieth century, not least in my own homeland.

Never in Sean’s article does he arrive at what we could meaningfully call a definition of colonialism. There is more a “colourblind” effort to set all peoples on an equal footing, not least in a discussion of accusations of racism on the Left which are supposedly “little more than an expletive, a political swear-word, a species of ideological terrorism”. He here confuses cause for effect, in suggesting that even our words in rebellion against colonialism are to be painted in the language of terrorism and its policing. Or, perhaps, counter-insurgency?

Unabashed in defence of the AWL’s positions, Sean suggests that “pro-Palestinians of Kumar’s sort” are themselves the racists. So much for deeming the word “racism” itself a mere piece of “ideological terrorism”. Are we to accept the terrorism of the colonisers even when the terrorism of the colonised is painted as a genocidal threat to the national minorities composed of settler colonialists? Never is this more confused when he attributes to the Soviet Union the aim of mounting a “colonial war of conquest” in Afghanistan, even when the world’s first socialist state supported a legitimate and truly national government.

Denying the decolonial gaze thus brings Sean to equate oppressed with oppressor, painting a situation in which an Arab-Islamic “conquest” is about to be imposed on the Zionist settlers who have conquered Palestine. So much for “backing” the Palestinians, when he deploys crude stereotypes and Zionist talking points to defame the very forces who are fighting against the ongoing colonisation project. Our future historian will surely need a materialist account of the colonial project itself, rather than a mere exchange of moral absolutes on the violences of the conflict.

For Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the truth was not simple and absolute. Prescribing some fixed idea of nationhood and self-determination as transhistorical, as if there were to be one state per self-defining national community, does not allow us to grasp the particularities of colonialism, built precisely on the denial of the Other. Of course, it is racist to demonise the colonised as backward and violent. Of course, it is racist to suggest that settlers have a national right that can usurp the rights of those they replace.
Sean’s narrative sets one set of bodies at the expense of smothering the decolonial gaze.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.