Bernard E. Harcourt | Three Questions for Revolution 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

At the first session of Revolution 13/13, three questions emerged as central problematics for this year’s public seminar. I will specify them in as precise terms as possible to help guide our conversation over the coming months:

  1. First, what, if any, difference is there between the critical philosopher situated in the academy and the worldly philosopher located outside, with regard specifically to their possible contributions to critique and praxis?

Now, to a certain extent, in his original essay and also in response to Seyla Benhabib’s intervention at the first seminar, Biodun Jeyifo distanced himself from this first question. In his essay, Jeyifo wrote:

This question is absolutely unnecessary and I withdraw it without any hesitation. It is completely unhelpful to have to choose between a Theodor Adorno and a Mahatma Gandhi; or between Hannah Arendt and Mao Zedong; or between Michel Foucault and James Baldwin. To put the matter in the most defetishized manner possible, it is like comparing one field of valuation or plane of observation against a totally different one.[i]

I agree entirely that there is no reason—that it may be counterproductive—to rank these different categories of thinkers as better or more important. There is no reason to exclude or belittle one group. And there is no doubt that the crosspollination between academic and worldly philosophers is extraordinarily productive, as we saw when we explored, during Nietzsche 13/13, the relationship between Frantz Fanon, or Aimé Césaire, or Ali Shari’ati and Nietzsche’s writings.

Despite all that, the question of the difference—not the superiority or inferiority, but the difference—between academic critical theorists and worldly philosophers is at the very heart of Biodun Jeyifo’s original challenge. And it is of utmost importance!

If our ambition is to go beyond “crisis & critique” and the diagnoses of our contemporary crises, if our ambition is to push critical philosophy further to the question of “critique & praxis,” then it becomes crucial to ask ourselves: What is the difference between engaging the written work of someone like Kwame Nkrumah, Rosa Luxemburg, or Ho Chi Minh, versus grappling with the work of Foucault, Arendt, Deleuze, or Adorno? Is there something about being situated in the academy that has effects or that does a certain kind of work? Does it matter, does it differ, to be located in the university, to be a teacher or a professor—from Latin, a person who “professes,”[ii] in these times, someone who tends to profess knowledge of a specific kind, often today “book knowledge”?

Now, many of the thinkers that we so often turn to, in these 13/13 public seminars, are or were located in the academy: Adorno, Althusser, Arendt, Deleuze, Du Bois, Foucault, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Said, Spivak. Some were not: Beauvoir, Césaire, Fanon, Marx, Sartre. But most of those who we will be engaging this year were definitely not: Baldwin, Gramsci, C.L.R. James, Lenin, Luxemburg, Nkrumah, George Padmore—and I hope we will get to George Jackson, Bobby Sands, Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer, Steve Biko, Jose Mariategui, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara – all very far from the academy…

To be sure, some were at the interstices. Sartre was not in the academy, but practically. Walter Rodney taught at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and the University of the West Indies (Jamaica). Stuart Hall was professor of sociology and had an impressive academic career. This is not a binary distinction, rather more of a spectrum. But nevertheless, for the most part, we are defining worldly philosophers as being non-academics who were intimately involved in revolutions. The question then arises: What difference does it make to be outside the academy, when it comes to questions of critique and praxis?

  1. Second, if there is indeed a difference, how much of it turns on one’s personal implication in struggle and rebellion?

This second question raises a complicated issue regarding the possible autonomy of critique and whether it is even possible to distinguish, to separate, or to delineate ideas from action. One definition of praxis itself is “to engage in critique”—which has the tendency to collapse critique and praxis. But I think it is important to try to maintain some differentiation between theory and practice. And if we do, then the question arises whether certain practices—especially revolutionary practices—have effects on the resulting writings.

Let’s take the example of Fanon. As we all know, Fanon joined the FLN when he was in Algeria and contributed to the FLN’s underground paper al-Moujahid. When he was expulsed from Algeria, Fanon moved to Tunisia to continue his militancy with the FLN, and was ultimately appointed ambassador to Ghana. Was there something about those acts that imprints something, some difference, in the resulting work, The Wretched of the Earth, at a theoretical or practical level?

When we read, for instance, the passage on pages 153-154 of Wretched of the Earth, where Fanon is specifically addressing Négritude and the First and Second Congresses of Black Writers and Artists, do we read them differently because of his political engagement? Does it cast a light on or infuse his discussion of the participation of Black Americans?

Negritude thus came up against its first limitation, namely, those phenomena that take into account the historicizing of men. “Negro” or “Negro-African” culture broke up because the men who set out to embody it realized that every culture is first and foremost national, and that the problems for which Richard Wright or Langston Hughes had to be on the alert were fundamentally different from those faced by Léopold Senghor or Jomo Kenyatta.[iii]

Is Fanon’s analysis of Négritude different—qualitatively, in kind—from that of someone who would be situated in the academy and for that reason? Is it different because Fanon had implicated himself in a revolutionary movement? Was it because of his actions that we might read the text differently? Biodun Jeyifo proposed, as an exercise or case study, that we compare Fanon’s arguments against Négritude to those of scholars such as Stanislas Adotevi in Négritude et Négrologues or “Negritude is dead: the burial,” or the work of Marcien Towa or Jean-Marie Ndengue. This would be a useful exercise, almost a natural experiment.

Or how about this passage, nearby, where Fanon writes:

Colonialism […] inevitably leads to a glorification of cultural phenomena that become continental instead of national, and singularly racialized. In Africa, the reasoning of the intellectual is Black-African or Arab-Islamic. It is not specifically national. Culture is increasingly cut off from reality.”[iv]

Do we read and understand this passage differently because Fanon would implicate himself in the FLN?

Now, to be sure, we would have to acknowledge that Fanon, because of his situatedness within an anti-colonial armed movement, had expertise on colonialism that could not be found merely in the archives or the books. That’s undoubtedly true; but that’s too easy.

The more demanding question is: Does the fact that someone like Fanon implicates himself in revolt give his writings a different weight or quality for our analyses today of critique & praxis, by contrast, that is, to someone located within the academy, the professoriate, the research community? And if so, what is that difference?

  1. Third, how much of all this discussion is about praxis as opposed to tactics or strategy? And what, if anything, do these interrogations tell us about the line between praxis, strategy, and tactics?

Seyla Benhabib puts a lot of pressure on these distinctions in her comments. In her essay “On the unity and dissonance of Critique and Praxis,” Benhabib emphasizes that the project of pushing critique toward praxis, in the way in which I am trying to do, suffers from a confusion over the demarcation between praxis, strategy and tactics. Benhabib writes that the project “conflates strategy and philosophy; critique and tactics.”[v]

I take this challenge very seriously—and anticipate that this year’s seminars will spend a lot of effort working at the intersection of praxis-strategy-tactics. Surely, the lines are more fluid than bright. And they are often, sometimes intentionally, problematized. You will recall that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt argue in Assembly for the inversion of strategy and tactics: arguing against pure leaderlessness, they take the position that we should “transform the role of leadership by inverting strategy and tactics”: let the multitude decide on strategy, but the leaders decide on tactics.[vi]

For now, though, there remains an important question for us. To put it in its most concrete form, the question is: How might the distinction between, on the one hand, critical philosophers located in the academy and, on the other hand, worldly philosophers located outside, help us think about the space of praxis and its demarcation (or not) from what we might call “strategies” or “tactics”?

Those three concrete questions will guide us in much of our discussions in Revolution 13/13—at least, I hope they will be fruitful and productive.

A Brechtian Hypothesis

At this early juncture, I will also throw out one hypothesis—far too much of a generalization (all of which are always wrong), far too preliminary, but nonetheless, something that intrigues and certainly interpellates me. Again, this is a mere hypothesis.

Is it possible that the worldly philosophers see things in starker moral or ethical or political terms? Is it possible that they see things more “black and white” – an expression that resonates, naturally, with the anti-colonial struggles we discuss in Revolution 1/13 and 2/13?

I am reminded here, for example, of the tension between Bertolt Brecht and the academic members of the Frankfurt School.[vii] Might it be that those outside the academy tend to be more Brechtian in their view of the world? I am reminded here as well of those special years, in the early 1970s, when even academic critical philosophers, such as Foucault or Deleuze, implicated and immersed themselves in social movements—I will return to this later. They participated in the work of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (“GIP” or Prisons Information Group); they engaged in a form of academic rebellion, helping to organize the experimental university campus at Vincennes. To be sure, we are far from revolutionary action. This is not like joining the FLN. There are gradations of implication. But those moments, even among academic critical theorists, seem to have been marked, sometimes explicitly, by a conception of “the intolerable” – as in the enquêtes intolérables of the GIP– that demarcates more clearly certain political, ethical, moral lines.

Is this a question of temperament? Does it implicate questions of self-doubt, skepticism, certainty, nuance and complexity, or resolution? Is it a psychological question? What accounts for le passage à l’acte?

I have a certain fondness for the Brechtian worldview, I must confess. (You will recall Theo Bleckmann’s brilliant and inspiring musical rendition of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera last year at Abolition Democracy 5/13 on the abolition of property. If we had the time, I would rewind the tape…) The Brechtian worldview often feels sharper, more delineated, more resolute. It seems more engaged.

But this is just a preliminary hypothesis—one that was immediately challenged at the seminar. So, for now, it is just an idea to keep in mind. The important point here is to discern these three questions for our forthcoming discussions.


[i] Biodun Jeyifo, “An ‘illuminati’ and its acolytes: Critical theory in the text and in the world,” British Journal of Sociology 72, no. 3 (June 2021): 863-870, at 868.

[ii] As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the etymology of “professor” is the following: “Anglo-Norman proffessur and Middle French professeur (French professeur) person who professes (c1275 in Anglo-Norman), academic teacher of an art or science, or of the law (1337 in proffesseur en loys ), person who openly professes the Christian faith (15th cent.) and its etymon classical Latin professor person who declares, person who claims to be expert in some art or science, teacher, in post-classical Latin also person who professes a faith (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), person who takes religious vows (13th cent. in British sources), university academic (frequently 1304–1583 in British sources) < profess- , past participial stem of profitērī profess v. + -or -or suffix. Compare Old Occitan professor (Occitan professor), Catalan professor (early 15th cent.), Spanish profesor (1359 as professor), Portuguese professor (15th cent.), Italian professore (1389).” Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Professor,” accessed September 22, 2021.

[iii] Franz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 154.

[iv] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 154.

[v] Seyla Benhabib, “On the unity and dissonance of critique and praxis,” British Journal of Sociology 72, no.3 (June 2021): 862.

[vi] See, generally, Bernard E. Harcourt, Critique & Praxis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 37-38.

[vii] See, generally, Harcourt, Critique & Praxis, 63-65.

One Comment

  1. The key difference in talking about worldly philosophers like Fanon, Che or Fidel for example and contrasting them with critical theorists is that the worldly philosophers such as those described above were engaged in armed struggle and immersed in the necessity to have a military political dimension to implementing their visions. Critical theorists have not engaged in that kind of struggle. Another dimension of difference comes into play with the fact that Fanon argues about the concept of revolutionary violence. Revolutionary violence is seen as essential for the oppressed to be used against the oppressor to liberate the colonized from their oppression.

    This is also illustrated in other decolonization struggles after World War II where I would see it as difficult to prove that critical theory had any impact at all. There is no evidence to show that these ideas had any impact on the Chinese revolution and certainly the Vietnamese revolution. If one looks at the armed struggles against Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa, there is little to no evidence that critical theory had any political or intellectual impact on those struggles as well.

    Note that presenting Nkrumah uncritically by looking at his writings without nuance presents a skewed view as to how and why he was overthrown. His ideas are important and visions of pan-africanism remain critical, but the praxis of a continent that has experienced over 180 military coups or more since 1960 make additional frameworks important to understand what has happened.

    Critical theory is not sufficient although it is stimulating and intellectually challenging. But too often people in the academy feel that their adherence to critical theory is a substitute for praxis. On that score I must differ.

    Best Jim

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