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

The philosophical roots of Sartre’s anti-colonial stance.

In this major new reading of Sartre’s life and work, Paige Arthur traces the relationship between the philosopher’s decades-long commitment to decolonization and his intellectual positions. Where other commentators have focused on the tensions between Sartre’s Marxism and his account of existential freedom, usually to denigrate one in favor of the other, Arthur shows how Sartre’s political engagement with global liberation movements and his philosophical framework developed alongside one another.

Closely following the postwar movements for decolonization, and then supporting the war of independence in Algeria, Sartre proposed an influential and uncompromising view of imperialism. Analyzing the Western attitude to the ‘subhuman’ colonial subject, he offered an account of the social constraints that applied to both ruler and ruled, and came to argue that political violence—on both sides—was a systematic consequence of the colonial order. Arthur’s rich and nuanced book locates Sartre within the political discussions of his time, whilst also looking forward to contemporary debates about new forms of imperialism and resistance.

Reviews

  • “In this innovative and exciting book, Paige Arthur recasts the story of twentiethcentury intellectual life by retrieving its global contexts and shattering convenient myths… Sartre’s anticolonialism proves in Arthur’s sophisticated rendition far richer and more complex than snide dismissals of his ‘totalitarian’ impulses have allowed.”
  • “Arthur’s insightful and careful exposition of Sartre’s anti-colonial trajectory from 1945 constitutes a powerful corrective to revisionist interpretation of his 'Third Worldism.'”
  • “In this fine book Paige Arthur systematically examines from a fresh perspective a second political engagement of Sartre’s: as a critic of colonialism and neo-colonialism and as a supporter of Third World liberation struggles.”

Blog

  • Nationalism and Imperialism: The Premises of Hobson's Definition

    Giovanni Arrighi's The Geometry of Imperialism was published by New Left Books in 1978, in a translation by Patrick Camiller. "I was disturbed, at the time," Arrighi later told David Harvey, "by the terminological confusions that were swirling around the term ‘imperialism’. My aim was to dissipate some of the confusion by creating a topological space in which the different concepts, which were often all confusingly referred to as ‘imperialism’, could be distinguished from one another."

    In Marxist debate, Arrighi argued, such confusions could be traced to Lenin's classical theory of imperialism, which at times fails to clearly distinguish it from "the monopoly stage of capitalism" or "finance capital." Arrighi's study would then be neither 
    "a simple reproduction of the thought of this or that theoretician" nor the development of a new theory of imperialism, but rather an examination of "the presuppositions of the theory of imperialism in order to explicate, specify, and delimit them." Those presuppositions were to be located not in Lenin's own theory, but in that of J.A. Hobson, which preceded it.

    In the excerpt below, the book's first chapter, Arrighi identifies 
    four primary elements of Hobson's conception of imperialism and isolates them in the form of Weberian ideal types, which them serve as the coordinates for his "topological" reconstruction. 



    It is no easy task to define the concept of imperialism. The same term is customarily used to designate diverse, and in certain respects antithetical, concepts. Indeed, theoretical controversy is often based on nothing more than a failure to grasp what is the object of reference.

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  • Perpetual War and Permanent Unrest: The Battle of Algiers After 9/11

    This essay is excerpted from Sohail Daulatzai's Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue, published by the University of Minnesota Press. A new 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers is currently touring theaters across the United States. 



    Though it is both troubling and telling, the screening of the film by the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is only the latest chapter in the afterlife of The Battle of Algiers. In many ways, the film is a battleground and a microcosm of the enduring struggles between the West and the Rest, whiteness and its others. But in a post- 9/11 moment, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which the centrality and omnipresence of the figure of the Muslim and the “War on Terror” have not only coded and shaped every aspect of social life but have also sought to undermine the power and politics of The Battle of Algiers.

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  • Vivek Chibber: Postcolonial Theory and "Really Existing Capitalism"

    At a recent talk in Crotia, Vivek Chibber discussed some of the major theoretical issues at the heart of his Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capitalwhich has caused a storm of controversy that since its publication:

    "One of the striking contradictions of postcolonial theory is that, even though it presents itself as the analytical framework of capitalist domination, it rejects the idea of a universal theory. Hence, it is in the awkward position of the acknowledgment that capitalism has been globalized, but denying that we can conceive a general theory of its functioning or its properties. This is a deep and devastating contradiction at the very heart of postcolonial theory. I will examine the sources of this dilemma and argue that the best framework for understanding capitalism remains a Marxian one, which I further defend from the accusations of weakness made by postcolonial critics."


    The talk, moderated by Katarina Peović Vuković, was given at Cinema Europa, Crotia, for the 
8th Subversive Film Festival, "Spaces of Emancipation: Micropolitics and Rebellions", 14th May 2015. 

    More from Vivek Chibber here.