Dialectics and Difference: Against the “Decolonial Turn”

The decade or so since the financial crisis of 2008 has seen a resurgence of interest in what nineteenth-century thinkers would have called “the social question,” backpedaling somewhat from the “cultural turn” of previous decades. Yet despite a series of recent skirmishes against the post-communist geopolitical order—from the Greek uprising in December 2008 to the London riots, Arab Spring, and Spanish indignados of 2011, up to the Polish women’s strikes in October 2016—old habits die hard. Few self-styled radicals who came of age during the nineties and aughts, especially those who attended universities, want to see the discourses of “difference” on which they were weaned suddenly abandoned wholesale. Alongside nascent and budding movements, then, one witnesses the recrudescence of concepts and strategies which ought to have been superseded by events themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost endless balkanization of identity formations. Each lays claim to a particular set of un-relatable “lived experiences,” as if hell-bent on proving the old psychoanalytic trope of Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen (narcissism of small differences).

“Decolonial” criticism is an example of just this sort of vogue academic approach, which can be grafted onto preexisting disciplines and practices with relative ease. Still further, in so doing, it offers the semblance of radicalism, because it appears to challenge the tacit erasures and hidden presuppositions of prior revolutionary perspectives. In reality, however, it simply transposes dependency theory in the realm of economics onto that of epistemology. Third-worldism, based on the model proposed by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, has been supplanted by talk of the Global South, based on the line proposed by the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1983. But the substance remains the same. Mainly it consists in diagnosing the allegedly Eurocentric prejudices of various bodies of knowledge, down to their very methodologies, and then enjoining individuals to decolonize their minds. “Kill the cop in your head!” is seemingly replaced by “kill the Pilgrim in your head!” Recently, this procedure has even sought to “colonize” dialectical thought, although in the name of its decolonization. Here it becomes worthwhile to review one of the more elaborate efforts to subsume dialectics under difference.

Irreconcilable differences

“Ours is a newly dialectical age,” announces George Ciccariello-Maher at the outset of his book Decolonizing Dialectics (2017). By this he means “the much-touted teleological ‘end of history’ has collapsed like the myth it always was into fragmentation, disunities, and dynamic oppositions.” He immediately calls attention to the contentious character of the term, since many who heralded this historical denouement a quarter century ago did so on the basis of arguments invoking the dialectic.[1] “For too long,” Ciccariello-Maher continues, “dialectics has not served to denote the moments of combative division that give its name but instead the opposite: a harmonious closure.”[2] Against this conservative conception, he hopes to restore its critical, revolutionary valence.

The book’s title might give rise to some confusion. Decolonizing Dialectics does not aim to deploy dialectical methodology in ongoing projects of decolonization. Indeed, colonialism in the narrow sense of direct territorial occupation and administration scarcely exists today, having been replaced by more indirect “colonialism by remote control.”[3] Rather, Ciccariello-Maher aims to “decolonize” the methodology itself: i.e., remove the accidental features that mark its geographic origins and add any essentials it may be lacking. Whereas the two classic forms of dialectic, idealist and materialist alike, proceed by means of internal contradictions and move toward determinate ends, “decolonizing dialectics underscores how the Hegelian and Marxian conceptions of history emerge from a particular location (Europe) and assume dialectical resolutions specific to it (Sittlichkeit through civil society for Hegel, the abolition of class by proletarian revolution for Marx).”[4]

Ciccariello-Maher’s latest release thus contributes to a growing body of literature within the academy, the gist of which is to challenge established disciplines and schools of thought by questioning their provenance and scope of applicability. Pioneered by figures like Walter Mignolo, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and Ramón Grosfoguel, the approach cultivated in this literature has been dubbed “decolonial”—an admittedly torturous locution. Over the past year or so, a number of works have appeared in a similar vein. Amy Allen, author of The End of Progress (2016), asserts that “critical theory stands in need of decolonization insofar as the strategy for grounding normativity relies on the notion of historical progress.”[5] She implores critical theorists to adopt a stance of “epistemic humility” as well as a “genuine openness to subaltern others.”[6] Gennaro Ascione argues in Unthinking Modernity (2016) that Marxists see modern society as too self-enclosed, too sealed off from outside forces: “[Marx’s] notion of incorporation [into global capitalism] conceals the colonial gaze and neutralizes the colonial difference by obscuring non-Western, non-capitalist agency.” Everything becomes reducible to “[capital’s] own inner contradictions.”[7]

Like Allen and Ascione, Ciccariello-Maher believes that existing modes of radical politics are still too reliant on narratives of linear progress and not yet open enough to marginalized perspectives. In contrast to a traditional dialectic that “moves inexorably and deterministically in keeping with its own internal oppositions,” he explains, “a decolonized dialectic recognizes both the historic source of that motion outside Europe in the colonies as well as the brutal reality that for colonial subjects, history often seems to move backward rather than forward, if it moves at all.”[8] Unlike Allen and Ascione, however, Ciccariello-Maher is more interested in “dialectics understood…as a practice”[9] than in theoretical matters such as normativity or the empirical validity of social science. Furthermore, he regards recent high-profile efforts to relate dialectical thought to non-European revolutionary movements as flawed: Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009) and Timothy Brennan’s Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies (2014) each “remain conspicuously Eurocentric.”[10] Ciccariello-Maher insists that “a decolonized (and decolonizing) dialectics—construed as radical practice and orientation toward struggle—predates, exceeds, and exists independently of even Hegel’s formulations, in the self-assertion of colonized and enslaved peoples.”[11]

Yet in attempting to alter the dialectical method, Decolonizing Dialectics abandons several of its crucial premises. Namely, the categories of totality, reciprocal mediation, and immanent critique, the absence of which ought to cast doubt on Ciccariello-Maher’s entire enterprise. His argument is pieced together from readings of texts by Georges Sorel, Frantz Fanon, and Enrique Dussel, two of whom disavow the concept of dialectics as such and none of whose views square neatly with their counterparts.’ This difficulty is acknowledged more than once by Ciccariello-Maher, which suggests he is at least aware of the implausibility (if not outright impossibility) of his thesis. Because built-in social antagonisms cannot function for him as the source of “a self-starting and automatic movement,”[12] the impetus must come from without. Progress hinges here on “an appeal to exteriority and a ‘colonial difference’ that exceeds an internally dialectical relation,”[13] which allows “the antagonistic projection of militant identities to jumpstart historical motion.”[14] Revolutionary subjectivity can only be revived by “drawing together multiple dialectics whose central identities—class, race, nation, and people—are neither distinguished categorically from nor reduced to one another.”[15]

Just how far this has drifted from the materialist dialectic will be shown by the following. While Ciccariello-Maher nowhere claims to be a Marxist, it is nevertheless instructive to set his retrofitted radicalism side-by-side with the universality of Marx. “Today, the notion there is any meaningful commonality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if its opponents rarely state their case in so many words,” Loren Goldner explains.

For them, such ideas—for instance, the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, or that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria by which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different “cultures”—are “white,” “male,” “Eurocentric” constructs designed to deny women, peoples of color, and gays the “difference” of their “identity.”[16]

Needless to say, the project of Decolonizing Dialectics is fundamentally at odds with that of revolutionary Marxism. Ciccariello-Maher is cognizant of this fact, however, and admits as much several times throughout the book. Ultimately this has to do with the aforementioned “colonial difference,” which Maldonado-Torres classifies as a “subontological difference”[17] (in an article cited by Ciccariello-Maher).[18] Here there are obvious echoes of Martin Heidegger, whose exploration of so-called “ontological difference” in Being and Time (1927) paved the way for both the “trans-ontological difference” of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics as well as Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive “différance.” The former was extremely influential for Dussel,[19] and hence, by extension, for Ciccariello-Maher (insofar as he takes his cues from the Argentine). Decolonizing Dialectics also shares clear methodological affinities with the latter. “I trail slightly closer to deconstruction than the dialectic,” he writes, “in the degree to which contingency, indeterminacy, and an open hostility to totality imbue the multiple and local dialectics of the thinkers dealt with in this book.”[20] But Heideggerian Differenz, colonial or otherwise, cannot coexist with the Hegelian Dialektik, Marxist or otherwise. Some scholars consider the pivotal shift in philosophy over the last century to have been the displacement of one by the other.[21] Again, Goldner summarizes this shift rather well:

Like Foucault after him, Heidegger aimed his arrows directly at dialectical thought, at Reason that tends to absorb the Other into itself, that understands all “otherness” as alienation (Or as in Marx’s motto, “nothing human is alien to me”). Against this kind of rationality, Heidegger tried to erect a wall of Differenz, difference that was not dialectically mediated or superseded by any historical process, but just…different: the same irreducible, anti-dialectical difference Derrida would later call différance.[22]

It is no accident that “incommensurability” appears as often as it does in Ciccariello-Maher’s brief study.[23] Nor is it purely adventitious that he would so applaud Sorel for “pressing class difference to the very breaking point”[24]—i.e., “to the point where an internal class relation threatens to become an external nonrelation.”[25] For Sorel, Ciccariello-Maher maintains, “the relation between the classes is one of incommensurability and irreconcilability bordering on nonrelation.”[26] The literary critic Fredric Jameson, whose work provides occasional guidance for Ciccariello-Maher,[27] calmly observes that “the concept of the incommensurable is at the very heart of contemporary philosophies of difference, and so one needs to know whether the dialectic is not powerful enough to transform this affirmation of ‘radical difference’ into a new form of relationship.”[28] One might note in passing that the real (historical) basis for the commensurability of incommensurable items, and thus for dialectic itself, is precisely abstract labor as the measure of value under capital.[29]

Goldner is right to suspect, at any rate, that “behind their all-too-facile attacks on ‘master narratives’ and bureaucracy, theoreticians of difference were after the real game: the unitary working-class ‘subject.’ ” This is certainly the case with Ciccariello-Maher, who contends that “in order to overcome capitalism, we must call into question the immanent perfection of the (European) proletariat as revolutionary subject.”[30] Moreover, those who continue to defend the classical Marxist doctrine that the proletariat is “the only decisively revolutionary class in society”[31] are either convicted of class-centrism, Eurocentrism, or both.[32] “Any insistence on the centrality of class as the universal political identity motivating human progress elevates a particular feature of European development to the status of world-historic universal,” writes Ciccariello-Maher, “thus imprisoning the racialized and colonized of the world within a linear developmentalism which obliges them to catch up with Europe.”[33] Sorel is summoned as an expert witness in Ciccariello-Maher’s case against the central role assigned to the proletariat by Marxism. “Instead of a progressive clarification of class oppositions through the unbridled logic of capital and an unfolding dialectic leading to inevitable proletarian victory… Sorel saw only blockage and stasis, a frozen dialectic.”[34] Pivoting to a discussion of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961), Ciccariello-Maher contends: “Even dialectics lacks traction in this peculiarly barren space [in Europe], as Sorel has shown. While the proletariat could have smashed the narcissistic dialogue of European thought, it refused to step forward, and instead demanded inclusion in a totalized Hegelianism of the spirit. Yet European equilibrium was only possible at the expense of a substantial outside beyond its borders.”[35] Fanon is repeatedly quoted in order to say that workers are “pampered.”[36]

Of course, the search for a revolutionary subject to replace the old industrial proletariat is nothing new. Who will fill this role left empty by the proletariat? Ciccariello-Maher seems to doubt the very logic of a universal social subject, much less one founded on class, and so he turns to the third author dealt with in his study: the Argentine philosopher Dussel, whose “decolonial appeal to excluded exteriorities”[37] represents one of Decolonizing Dialectics’ main points of departure. Dussel’s category of exteriority functions as a sort of catchall or generic grab-bag of oppressed identities, covering “all those groups that are systematically excluded (economically, politically, according to gender, etc.) from the various systems comprising that totality to the global ‘cultural exteriority’ of colonized and formerly colonized spaces, where collective practices either predate or coexist with those which make up the world-system.”[38] Looking to the fringes of global capitalism, to the periphery away from the core, Ciccariello-Maher discovers “multifaceted subjects, individuals to varying degrees outside the system”[39]: “Exteriority is expressed by a multiplicity of subject-positions.”[40] All this talk of world-system and the alternation of core and periphery immediately calls to mind economists like André Gunder Frank, and indeed Ciccariello-Maher seeks to buttress his argument in “dependency theory” à la Monthly Review.[41] (Frank, credited by Dussel with the solution to this question,[42] would later abandon the Mao-inflected Marxism of his youth in favor of a more decentered model that regarded even Marx as “Eurocentric.”)[43]

To claim there is still space outside capitalist society considered as a totality implies that its expansionary logic is incomplete. Perhaps no one would have been surprised if this were so a hundred years ago, when capitalism had yet to make inroads into every territory across the Earth. But in today’s fully globalized world, the notion that anywhere remains untouched by its growth seems unlikely. Nevertheless, Ciccariello-Maher feels that Decolonizing Dialectics requires “a fundamental break with the paradigm of totality.”[44] He is concerned to get away from “the prevailing, totality-bound Hegelian-Marxist tradition.”[45] Or as he puts it elsewhere: “We cannot decolonize dialectics solely by prying open the cracks of immanent critique,” as this requires “stepping beyond the geographical and methodological boundaries of traditional dialectics.”[46] Ciccariello-Maher even scolds Bruce Baum, an author sympathetic to decolonial critique, for attempting to “decolonize” critical theory only “from within” (rather than “from without”). In his view, this resulted in “a very limited and almost wholly immanent critique of the Frankfurt School,” an approach which he deems insufficient.[47] “Epistemic decolonization,” he remarks, introducing another infelicitous phrase, involves finding “the outside from which to decolonize European thought.”[48] Rather than “the dialectics of Eurocentric communism,” which search for “faint refractions of borrowed anticolonial light,” Ciccariello-Maher counsels his readers to “go straight to the incandescent luster of the source”[49]—by which he means “struggles emerging from the global periphery.”[50] As opposed to the path taken by Brennan in Borrowed Light, for example.

Likewise, Ciccariello-Maher finds contemporary efforts to resuscitate universal history to be misguided. That a European philosopher like Hegel drew inspiration from events outside of Europe like the Haitian Revolution is apparently of little consequence. Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History is furthermore taken to task for its “privileging the Enlightenment ideal of liberty,” which for some unknown reason “betrays a troubling Eurocentrism.”[51] Her celebration of Toussaint Louverture’s abstract universalism for its lofty cosmopolitan rhetoric is also evidence of her incorrigibly Eurocentric habits of thought. Ciccariello-Maher prefers a less remembered figure, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who in his mind represented “the dialectics of black and national identity.”[52] One begins to get a sense of just what kind of “outside” he envisions as a decolonial springboard, as “the identitarian moment becomes an essential step toward the universal.”[53] Subjectivity and identity are treated as more or less synonymous by Ciccariello-Maher (a significant slip, given the heavy historico-philosophical overtones of the former). Moreover, he grants “equivalence and coevalness” to every form of political identity, in a nod to “equiprimordiality” (Heidegger’s Gleichursprünglichkeit), just as he rejects “the all-too-frequent contempt for identity politics.”[54]

Ultimately, Ciccariello-Maher follows Dussel through to his postulate of the “people” or pueblo as a decolonial alternative to the old-fashioned Marxian proletariat: “By breaking with a purely internal relation of oppression, Dussel’s pueblo breaks with a narrowly Marxist focus on economic exploitation and the working class as a revolutionary subject, providing a new conceptual framework to accommodate colonial economic conditions.”[55] However, pueblo is more of a meta-subject than a subject in the traditional sense. “The people functions as an identity of identities, drawing together various subidentities—each with their own particular subdialectics—into a broader horizon and antagonistic frontier,” writes Ciccariello-Maher.[56] Popular identity in Latin America thus becomes a “category of rupture,”[57] one which “tears down the walls of totality and opens a space through which exteriority bursts into history.”[58] While Ciccariello-Maher takes this category over from Dussel, whose treatise on the subject he translated, it synchs well with his own longstanding support for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.[59] In a paean to the 1989 Caracazo rebellion, for example, he lyrically recounts that “this expanding and combative people came into existence the second they shook the frontiers of Being, shattering the mythical façade of Venezuelan harmony by rushing forward relentlessly, with little attention paid to the sometimes-dangerous shards that remained.”[60] Venezuelan Chavismo, Ciccariello-Maher contends, preserves these multifarious elements as “a subdialectic or dialectic-within-a-dialectic.”[61]

A corollary of the philosophical shift from Dialektik to Differenz is a shift from negation to affirmation. Goldner aptly comments that “what was ending [with the rise of theories based on ‘difference’] was the world-historical career of ‘negation,’ theorized for modern times by Hegel.”[62] In agreement with Dussel, then, Ciccariello-Maher argues that “negative dialectic is no longer enough.”[63] Revolution today requires the “affirmation of exteriority,” or rather “an appeal which is more than a merely internal and negative critique of the totality, more than a simply dialectical rupture.” Once again this is due to “both the colonial tendency of ontology and its violent hostility to alterity.”[64] Fittingly, Ciccariello-Maher ends his book on a “positive” note, with a section entitled “Labor of the Positive” (a détournement of Hegel).[65] “The self-activity of decolonial subjects evades a purely negative dialectics,” he declares, “with tradition providing a positive wellspring for dialectical motion.”[66] Hence Ciccariello-Maher’s call for “a recrafted dialectics of tradition, exteriority, and distance.”[67] Nationalism can even at times be put to positive use as a traditional source of decolonizing sentiments,[68] and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of Eurocentrism: “Black and decolonial nationalisms are thereby collapsed into the same [old nationalisms]: thus spoke Europe.” Populism, traditionalism, nationalism are each “weapons whose meaning appears to change depending on who wields them.”[69]

Still, there is another difficulty lurking behind this positivist twist. After all, Dussel’s whole “turn toward the Other, the outside, and the beyond”[70] in his Philosophy of Liberation is part of what he calls “analectics.” Or as he explains it, “analectic refers to the real human fact, by which every person or people or group is situated ‘beyond’ (ano-) the horizon of totality.”[71] Ciccariello-Maher tries to soften Dussel’s antipathy to dialectics, arguing that his “analectics” are not so diametrically opposed.[72] From the start, Decolonizing Dialectics maintains: “Dussel’s break with dialectics is far from complete, and his incorporation of the category of exteriority into national and popular identity proves an essential ingredient for decolonized dialectics.”[73] What results is instead “a reformulated and decolonized dialectics…in which the analectical appeal [interpelación] to the Other figures not as a ‘method’ per se—i.e., a replacement for dialectics—but as a ‘moment’ in a broader dialectical progression.”[74] This “anadialectical” or “affirmationist” reformulation of the dialectic might not be unwarranted in light of the latest writings Dussel has published.

Positivity is understood as the origin of negativity, defined as “analectics” (a dialectics that is initially positive). Ironically, the first Frankfurt School discovered Hegel’s critical negativity (negative dialectic), but not positivity (analectics), and for that reason in the end either succumbed to tragic messianism (Horkheimer or Adorno) or to a creative imagination without radical alterity (Marcuse).[75]

Ciccariello-Maher is admirably forthright in his renunciation of major tenets of dialectical thought: totality, immanence, many-sidedness, reciprocity. One wonders if anything is left of dialectics apart from the name, since, as Marx once said of Proudhon, Decolonizing Dialectics “has nothing of Hegel’s dialectics but the language”[76]—and often not even that. Dialectical methodology, where it remains intact, has been thoroughly “sophisticated” with warrantless additions.[77] The tempered steel of German logic, as Trotsky called it,[78] has been alloyed with metals of vastly inferior quality (usually of French origin). Now that the primary arguments of Decolonizing Dialectics have been dealt with, though, certain comparisons can be made. And even beyond this, Ciccariello-Maher’s readings of works by various authors—especially the writings of the Peruvian socialist José Carlos Mariátegui, The Black Jacobins by the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, and Fanon’s masterpiece Black Skin, White Masks—may be evaluated to see whether their spirit is faithfully communicated. Finally, the “motley band of theoretical heretics” (as he refers to Sorel, Fanon, and Dussel)[79] might be interrogated further. Some of the works Ciccariello-Maher invokes are far more promising than the highly selective use to which he puts them.

Before delving into Ciccariello-Maher’s mistakes, however, it is fair to pose a question he raises at the outset of Decolonizing Dialectics but never adequately answers: Why dialectics? How does Ciccariello-Maher determine this method is necessary, as opposed to any other? Indeed, given his commitment to sustain a “space for contingency,”[80] it is uncertain whether he would ever try to derive the necessity of his method. All three reasons he gives for taking a dialectical approach are arbitrary: 1) he does not want to cede dialectics to conservatives; 2) he does not want to succumb to theories of diffuse “multiplicity”; and 3) he is influenced by various “decolonial organic intellectuals” who adopted this framework.[81] Later Ciccariello-Maher explains in a note that, while he takes Cristina Beltrán’s The Trouble with Unity (2010) seriously, his own approach “will tread closer to a radicalized dialectics than the rhizomatics associated with Gilles Deleuze.”[82] Yet this seems more a matter of preference than a matter of substance. Either option would be just as valid, in other words, but dialectics are more to his taste. Ciccariello-Maher subscribes to what might be called the “buffet” model of picking and choosing theories, a smattering of this and a smattering of that, instead of adopting one approach and applying it rigorously (much less letting the object dictate). Method should not be thought separate from the content of what is under review. If the dialectic is to be more than a subjective addition, an arbitrary “way of thinking” about the world, its logic has to be discovered in the object itself, in this case society: “Dialectical understanding is nothing other than the conceptual form of a real dialectical fact.”[83]

For a dialectical account of society to be warranted, then, a dynamic tension thus has to operate throughout the social whole and govern its totality. The Frankfurt School sociologist Theodor Adorno went so far as to contend in a lecture series of 1968 that “the concept of ‘society’ is, and must be, inherently dialectical.” Society, he continued to explain, signifies “[a] mediated and mediating relationship between individuals, and not as a mere agglomerate of individuals. It is thus dialectical in the strict sense, because the mediation between these two opposed categories—individuals on the one side, and society on the other—is implicit in both.”[84] Even further, as the great Hegelian Marxist Antonio Labriola had pointed out seven decades prior:

The real criticism of society is society itself, which by the antithetic conditions upon which it rests engenders from itself—within itself—the contradiction over which it finally triumphs by passing into a new form. But the solution of existing antitheses is the proletariat, whether proletarians themselves know this or not. Even as their misery has become the condition of present society, so in their misery resides the justification of the new proletarian revolution. It is in this passage from the criticism of subjective thought, which examines things from the outside and imagines it can correct them all at once, to an understanding of the self-criticism exercised by society over itself, in the immanence of its own processus, that the dialectic of history consists, which Marx and Engels, insofar as they remained materialists, drew from the idealism of Hegel.[85]

Labriola thereby introduced a conditio sine qua non of dialectical thought, “the immanence of its own process.” Hegel once defined dialectics as “the immanent process of transcendence [dies immanente Hinausgehen]” of finite judgments issued by the intellect,[86] a definition later borrowed by Lukács.[87] According to Hegel, thinking is nothing other than “the resolution of contradictions from its own resources [aus sich].”[88] Placed back on its feet, of course, dialectic must seek appropriate means to resolve its contradictions. “The weapon of criticism cannot replace criticism by weapons,” wrote Marx in 1843. “Material force must be overthrown by material force, but theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses…” Sociohistoric immanence is embodied by the proletariat, however, and so “philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat.”[89]

Obviously, anyone who finds the immanent critique of capitalism too limited will not be persuaded by the idea that the proletariat alone can overcome its contradictions. Ciccariello-Maher, for example, argues that “Sorel can even be understood as a forerunner of those for whom the twentieth century…would mark the ‘real subsumption’ (in Marx’s terms) of the working class under the capitalist state, via mediating organs such as political parties or trade unions.”[90] Proletarians had been more or less successfully integrated into capitalism, in other words, their revolutionary potential nullified. This is a fairly standard conflation on the part of Ciccariello-Maher, however. Sorel’s theories do not in any meaningful sense prefigure those of Hardt and Negri or the Endnotes collective, who are listed as latter-day adherents to this belief. Real subsumption corresponds to the dominance of what Marx called the production of relative surplus-value, whereas formal subsumption corresponds to the dominance of the production of absolute surplus-value.[91] However, Sorel was not just skeptical of the concept of surplus-value, but rejected the theory of value as such, so there is no basis for comparing Sorel with a group like Théorie Communiste.[92] Both reach the verdict that the working class can no longer be counted on as an agent of historic change. Whereas the latter does so on the strength of an argument about the real subsumption of labor under capital, however, the former does not. Nor should this be thought immaterial in a treatise on dialectics, either, for as Hegel pointed out long ago, what matters for science is not just the result, “but rather the result along with the process by which it came about.”[93] For the truth of a conclusion ought not be thought incidental to the method used to arrive at it; nothing is learned from what is only fortuitously correct.

Labriola, whose writings Sorel briefly championed in France during the 1890s, mercilessly mocked the Frenchman’s “premature lucubrations on the theory of value.”[94] Dussel, another of Ciccariello-Maher’s decolonial avatars, also runs into roadblocks when it comes to Marx’s value theory. This despite having dedicated an entire book to the exegesis of the 1861–1863 economic manuscripts. His problems begin once he tries to translate the Marxian critique of political economy into a Levinasian idiom, which is ill-equipped to handle its dialectical flux of categories (let alone convert these into language about “otherness” or “exteriority”). Oddly, Dussel locates the primordial node of exteriority to capitalism well within its borders, in the living labor employed by production. Ciccariello-Maher tucks away mention of this fact in an endnote, as it does not really fit with the overall thrust of Decolonizing Dialectics’ argument.[95] Unusually, Dussel’s close reading of the 1861–1863 drafts for Capital leads him to claim that “Marx’s category par excellence is not ‘totality’ but ‘exteriority.’ ”[96] Formulated differently, the Other of capital is labor, so Dussel can maintain that “the ‘exteriority’ of living labor vis-à-vis the ‘totality’ of capital is the precondition of Marx’s discourse.”[97] Patrick Murray, an excellent interpreter of Marx, shows that Dussel’s mistake is to focus on trans-historical forms like living labor instead of the more historically specific form of wage labor, which becomes generalized only with capitalism.[98] As a consequence, he falls prey to moralizing platitudes reminiscent of Proudhon. Surplus-value acquired through production is the Ur-form of “unequal exchange,” as workers are robbed of overtime.[99]

Moreover, while Ciccariello-Maher is at great pains to distinguish Dussel’s concept of the pueblo from Ernesto Laclau’s “populist reason,”[100] a decidedly less “popular” category among contemporary theory types, these efforts are undercut by the very man he seeks to defend. Dussel told an interviewer in 2001 that he “agreed with Laclau since day one,” insofar as he understood the latter to be “deconstructing class-based dogmas.” “What I proposed already in the seventies,” Dussel continued, “was the category of ‘the people’ [pueblo], which is not opposed to the concept of ‘class,’ but contains the former category. Class cannot completely take into account people, which is what Laclau and I are saying.”[101] Venezuela is Ciccariello-Maher’s preferred proving ground for this notion of the pueblo. And while he waxes poetic about “the combative dialectics and multiple sub-dialectics swirling around, and coalescing in, Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution,’ ”[102] petrol populism is a poor stand-in for the proletariat of old. Sergio López of Kosmoprolet already noted in 2009, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans like “Chávez is the people!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!”[103] López saw then that this “charitable kleptocracy” was rapidly steering the country toward its next social crisis, as indeed it has since the price of its oil mono-commodity bottomed out in 2013.[104] “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubs “twenty-first century socialism,” is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.”[105]

Even more fraught than the question of societal immanence is the question of “totality,” in the emphatic sense. Though he anchors Decolonizing Dialectics conceptually in Martin Jay’s 1983 Marxism and Totality,[106] a fairly comprehensive overview of the relationship, Ciccariello-Maher owes more to Dussel’s Levinasian transcendence of totality along with John Stanley’s elaboration of the Sorelian diremption of totality.[107] Leaving aside the issue of whether such a totality does today or should someday exist, however, the difference between descriptive and normative totality in Jay’s sense, one can perhaps conceive totality as a critical category. Jameson stresses that “totality is not something one ends with, but rather one begins with,” and goes on to explain: “It is capitalism as a now global system that is the totality or unifying force, such that one can even say the dialectic itself does not become historically visible until capitalism’s emergence.”[108] Brennan is more adamant still: “Modernity, if it is singular, is so not because of any unilateral declaration, or because theorists of a certain persuasion find totality attractive or find comfort in simple-minded formulae about the universal. Rather, it is singular because the overdeveloped and interlocking global systems of capital always act as the prime motives of colonialism and imperialism.”[109] While Ciccariello-Maher is obliged to address this nuance in his dissertation, he is reluctant to say whether he accepts the existence of totality as a tentative fact. Each of the thinkers discussed in Decolonizing Dialectics, he admits, “breaks with descriptive notions of totality as a point of departure.”[110] Perhaps the definitive critique of such deconstructive gestures, which seek to affirm agency by denying structure, has been articulated by Moishe Postone:

[Some are] critical of both homogeneity and totalization. However, rather than denying their real existence, [the Marxian] critique grounds processes of homogenization and totalization in historically specific forms of social relations and shows how structural tensions internal to those relations open up the historical possibility of abolishing those processes. The problem with many recent approaches that affirm heterogeneity is that they seek to inscribe it quasi-metaphysically, by denying the existence of what can only be historically abolished… In this way, positions intended to empower people often prove to be profoundly disempowering, insofar as they bracket and render invisible central dimensions of domination in the modern world of capitalism.[111]

Marx’s ruthless criticism of modern society proceeds from the historical possibilities opened up by that society. The standpoint of the proletariat invoked by Lukács, following Marx and Engels,[112] is not some sort of Archimedean point outside the capitalist mode of production, but rather a point inside this process from which the social totality can be glimpsed.[113] “Only from the standpoint of the proletariat can social contradictions be grasped as dialectical and made conscious,” declared Lukács in 1925, “the one class that is in a position to understand the total development of capitalist society as a process.”[114] As Marx proclaimed in the 1871 post-face to Capital, “in its rational form, the dialectic includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, of its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as in a fluid state, in motion, it therefore grasps its transient aspect; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.”[115] Vladimir Lenin similarly emphasized fifty years later that capitalism would only ever be overcome by “a long and persistent struggle… on the basis of capitalism itself.”[116] Communism will be inside out or not at all.


It ought to be mentioned that many thinkers posthumously enlisted to the decolonial cause would hardly recognize themselves in it. Fanon might, though he would likely be horrified by anti-humanist readings of his work, as Peter Hudis notes.[117] James and Mariátegui, by contrast, almost certainly would not. While someone like Grosfoguel takes pride in the fact he draws upon indigenous resources, and hence does not rely on master thinkers from the Occident, it is unlikely anyone not steeped in that tradition would be able to follow decolonial theory. Mignolo brings up the necessity of acts he refers to as “epistemic disobedience”: “Decolonial thought presupposes ‘delinking’ (both epistemically and politically) from the web of imperial knowledge.”[118] As Goldner explains, “delinking is a fancy name for an idea first developed by Stalin, called ‘socialism in one country,’ ”[119] first used in Samir Amin’s 1988 book Eurocentrism. Grosfoguel even calls for the “decolonization of postcolonial studies,” a field he thinks is still too reliant on the authority of Western thinkers, in an article on “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn.”[120] Mignolo delineates decolonial from postcolonial theory in a similar fashion, claiming that “the ‘decolonial’ shift is a project of ‘delinking’ whereas postcolonial theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy.”[121]

Yet the palpable irony here is that—even if Grosfoguel gets rid of the names Foucault, Derrida, and Gramsci while retaining only Guha, or if Mignolo jettisons Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida but holds on to Bhabha—they would still be working within the tradition they just disavowed, because Guha is unthinkable without Gramsci and Bhabha is unthinkable without Derrida. Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with the intrinsic “greatness” or unique “genius” of European civilization, or other such chauvinist nonsense. Rather, it has everything do with an historic form of universality that happened to develop in Europe and expanded outward from there. Decolonial theorists tend to be dissatisfied with this version of events, however. Toward the end of Decolonizing Dialectics, Ciccariello-Maher insists the method he sets forth is an ens causa sui. “Lest the underlying chronological architectonics of this book be seen as reinscribing the very same linear, deterministic, and progressive teleology that the thinkers in it contest,” Ciccariello-Maher writes, “the decolonized dialectics of Frantz Fanon and Enrique Dussel exist independently of Georges Sorel’s radicalized dialectics of class struggle… He is not their origin, source, or mandatory point of departure… While capitalism and coloniality emerged so jointly as to be nearly synonymous, decolonization itself is not an outgrowth of, nor does it find its ‘parentage’ in, the class struggle.”[122]

Still, the secondary figures Ciccariello-Maher deals with in Decolonizing Dialectics did not suffer the same anxiety of influence he imputes to them. Mariátegui, for example, noted the universalizing quality of capitalism as it arose in Europe. “Internationalism is not a brand new current,” he recorded in 1924. “For roughly a century or so now in European civilization one sees the tendency to develop an international organization of humanity.”[123] Anti-imperialism was not a particularly promising orientation for Mariátegui, seeing as it “does not constitute, and cannot constitute by itself, a political program, a mass movement capable of conquering power.”[124] Revolt in the periphery was meaningful only in conjunction with revolution in the core of capitalism, he felt, so he affirmed: “We are anti-imperialists because we are Marxists, because we are revolutionaries who oppose socialism to capitalism as an adversarial system called upon to succeed it.” By struggling against foreign imperialism they were merely fulfilling their “duties of solidarity with the revolutionary masses of Europe.”[125] Here he was more in line with Lenin and the early Comintern than the national liberation fronts of the second half of the twentieth century, since the former had written that “the dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the world scene.”[126] Little wonder, then, that the great Peruvian Leninist would declare:

the fate of all the workers of the world is in play in the European crisis, which ought to be of equal interest to workers of Peru and of the Far East… This crisis has Europe as its principal theater, but the crisis of European institutions is at the same time the crisis of institutions of Western civilization. And Peru, like other countries of the Americas, revolves inside the orbit of this civilization—not only because politically independent countries are being dealt with, but also because they are still economically colonized through their links to British, American, and French capitalism, because both our culture and types of institution are European. Right now, these democratic institutions—this culture we copied from Europe—come from a place which is in total crisis… Capitalist civilization has historically internationalized the life of humanity; it has created the material connections among peoples that establish an inevitable solidarity among them. Internationalism is not an idea, but a reality. Progress makes interests, ideas, customs, and regimes unify and merge. So Peru, like other countries in the Americas, is not, then, outside the crisis, but inside it. Global crisis has already had repercussions on these countries, and will of course continue to do so. A period of conservative reaction in Europe will likewise be a period of reaction in the Americas, just as a period of revolution in Europe will likewise be a period of revolution in the Americas… More than a century ago, when the life of humanity was not as linked as it is today, when today’s communication media did not exist, when the nations did not have the immediate, constant contact they have today, when there was no press, back when we were still distant spectators of European events—even then French Revolution provided the origin of our War of Independence and creation of all these republics. Just remembering this is enough for us to realize the rapidity with which the transformation of society is reflected in Latin America. Those who say Peru, or the Americas in general, is far from the European revolution, have no idea of contemporary life… Nor do they have even an approximate understanding of history.[127]

Mariátegui was evidently unconcerned with the provenance of ideas, whether they could be traced to native sources or were imported from Europe. “Socialism is certainly not an Indo-American doctrine,” he admitted in September 1928. “No such doctrine, no contemporary system is or could be. Although socialism, like capitalism, may have been born in Europe, it is not specifically or particularly European. It is a worldwide movement… Western civilization drives towards universality with forces and means that no previous civilization has possessed. One hundred years ago we owed our independence as nations completely to the rhythm of Western history, whose compass has inexorably moved us since colonization. ‘Democracy,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘sovereignty of the people’: all the great words men of that time pronounced, came from the European repertoire. History does not measure the greatness of such men for the originality of their ideas, however, but for the efficacy and the genius with which they served them.”[128] The Brazilian Marxist Michael Löwy has demonstrated, moreover, that the Sorel in Mariátegui’s writings was “invented” to suit his needs.[129]

James likewise remained a Marxist throughout his life, though in his elder years he came to soften his stance on black nationalism,[130] national liberation struggles,[131] and Maoism.[132] In 1937 particular, he reaffirmed that the emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national but a social problem, depending for its solution on the practical and theoretical concurrence of the most advanced countries.[133] Universality was clearly at the forefront of James’s mind in his Notes on Dialectics, as he dedicated five consecutive pages to the proposition, “Socialism is a universal.”[134] Lecturing on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) and his own book on The Black Jacobins (1938) in 1971, James took exception to the pigeonholing of Du Bois as a mere “black historian”: “People today take Du Bois and say that, in Black Reconstruction and The Souls of Black Folk, he was a man concerned primarily with blackness; they limit him to what they are concerned with. They are quite wrong.”[135] Du Bois certainly at times was a nationalist, but in his best moments he produced lines of unparalleled universalism—writing that “there should be no distinction of race or nationality, but only separation into two great classes: laborers and those who live by others’ labor.”[136] But the most dramatic contrast that can be offered between the perspective of a Marxist such as James and the perspective of a “decolonial” theorist like Ciccariello-Maher has to do with their respective interpretations of the massacre of white subsistence farmers in Haiti 1804. “When the whites were massacred during the Haitian Revolution,” Ciccariello-Maher expressed recently, “that was a good thing indeed.”[137] Here is what James had to say about it:

The massacre of the whites was a tragedy; not for the whites. For the old slave owners, the ones who burnt a little powder in the arse of a negro, or buried him alive for insects to eat, those who were well-treated by Toussaint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again; for them, there is no need to waste a tear or single drop of ink. The tragedy was for the blacks and the mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and revenge has no place in politics. The remaining whites were no longer to be feared, and such purposeless massacres degrade and brutalize a population, especially one which was just starting out as a nation and had so bitter a past. People did not want it. All they wanted was their freedom, and independence seemed to promise just that. Christophe and rest of the generals strongly disapproved. Had the British or the Americans thrown their weight on the side of humanity, Dessalines might have been curbed… But as it was, Haiti suffered terribly from the resulting isolation. Whites were banished from Haiti for generations, and the unfortunate country was ruined economically, its population lacking in social culture. Haiti’s inevitable difficulties were doubled by this massacre. That the new nation survived at all is forever to its credit, for if the Haitians thought imperialism was finished with them, they were mistaken.[138]

Ciccariello-Maher is no doubt aware of this passage. He even quotes a snippet from it in his review of Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, but is careful to leave out the parts that might contradict his celebratory narrative. Even Fanon—the one who wrote Wretched of the Earth—was far more ambivalent about the effects and effectiveness of violence than is Ciccariello-Maher. Postone has diagnosed such empty militant posturing as a symptom of historical helplessness, which has been the more deeply felt since the decline of the workers’ movement after the sixties. “Violence became seen as a nonreified, cleansing force erupting from the outside, identified now as the colonized, which took aim at the very foundations of the social order,” indicates Postone. “Retrospectively, we can see that the sort of existential violence promulgated [by Sorel, Pareto, or Fanon] may have effected a break with bourgeois society—but not, however, with capitalism.”[139]

As mentioned above, Ciccariello-Maher instead decides to lavish praise upon Dessalines, the general who sold Toussaint out to Leclerc[140] before doing the same to his rivals, Charles and Sanité Bélair.[141] Dessalines crowned himself emperor in 1804 and ruled with an iron fist over the ex-colonial island until his assassination two years later. If James likened Toussaint to Robespierre, Dessalines could be likened to Napoleon (this would still be in keeping with James’s political analogy, since Napoleon had once been a Jacobin). Marx had no patience for self-styled New World Napoleons like Simon Bolivar,[142] so it is not hard to imagine what he might have thought of Dessaline: “To see the most dastardly, most miserable, and meanest of scoundrels [Lump] described as Napoleon was altogether too much. Bolivar is a veritable Soulouque.”[143] What little success Dessalines enjoyed during his short-lived reign was thanks to “the economic exploitation of the black labor force,” as Marc-Rolph Trouillot pointed out in Haiti, State against Nation.[144] Of course, it is unsurprising that a supporter of Bolivarianism like Ciccariello-Maher would go in for populist strongmen like Bolivar or Dessalines. Chávez was not wrong to claim the former as an antecedent.

Finishing here with Fanon: Regrettably, as Sunit Singh points out, Wretched of the Earth is far better remembered than its predecessor, Black Skin, White Masks, largely because of the former’s historic importance to the New Left.[145] Ciccariello-Maher sees Fanon’s career as of a piece, and so the two works are viewed as compatible: “Those who would divide Fanon’s oeuvre—distinguishing Black Skin, White Masks from Wretched of the Earth—often do so by neglecting his decolonized dialectical vision.”[146] Later, however, he concedes that: “Fanon’s relation to the universal had changed between 1952 and 1961.”[147] Wretched of the Earth has some great moments, to be sure, setting aside its flawed class analysis and nationalist poetics, but Black Skin, White Masks is great from cover to cover. Near the end of it, Fanon brushed aside the need for so-called “epistemic decolonization” (more than fifty years avant la lettre, let it be said):

As a man, I must rework the world’s past from the very beginning. I am not just responsible for the slave revolt in Saint Domingue… Every time a man has brought victory to the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to attempt to enslave his fellow man, I have felt a sense of solidarity with his act. In no way does my vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color.

Must I ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century? Should I try by every means available to cause guilt to burgeon in their souls? Have I nothing better to do than avenge the blacks of that age? I have no right as a man of color to wish for a guilt complex to crystallize in white men regarding the past of my race; I have no right to become mired in the determinations of the past.

There is no black mission; there is no white burden.

I am not a slave to the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.

For many black intellectuals, European civilization possesses a characteristic of exteriority. Furthermore, in human relationships, the western world can feel foreign to a black man. Not wanting to be thought a poor relation, an adopted son, or a bastard child, must he feverishly try to discover a black civilization?

Let there be no misunderstanding. We are convinced it would be of enormous interest to discover a black literature or architecture from the third century before Christ, and would be overjoyed to learn of the existence of correspondence between some black philosopher and Plato. But we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year-olds working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe.

There should be no attempt to fixate man, since it is his destiny which is to be unleashed; the density of history determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation, for it is by going beyond the historical given that I initiate my cycle of freedom.

The misfortune of men of color is to have been enslaved. The misfortune and inhumanity of white men are having killed man elsewhere. Still today they organize this dehumanization rationally. But insofar as I can exist absolutely, I have no right to confine myself to a world of retroactive reparations.[148]

Elsewhere, in his 1956 address on “Racism and Culture,” Fanon again confirmed: “Racism…is not a constant of the human spirit, but a disposition that fits into a well-defined system.”[149] The task confronting revolutionaries today is to overthrow that system. If on the one hand it is necessary to recognize that “the ‘colorblind’ Marxism of many left communist currents—a proletarian is a proletarian is a proletarian—is simply…a blind Marxism,” as Goldner rightly contends,[150] then neither should it be admissible to endlessly prevaricate about some bizarre “racial allocation of guilt.”[151] As if Fanon did not raise this as a postulate to be refuted within the pages of the same book.

Decolonial theory does not advance the cause of emancipation. Much less does it shine the path forward for some renovated dialectic (unless, of course, this path is visualized as a dead end, or perhaps an ideological cul-de-sac). Quite the opposite: it attests to a regression that has taken place across the political spectrum, but which is particularly acute on the left. Nowhere is this more evident than in the simultaneous academicization of theory alongside the activistification of practice.

Still, neither this postscript nor the text it succeeds should be seen as an immanent critique of decolonial discourse, since strictly speaking this technique is reserved for objects worthy of redemption. Hence Marx’s approach to French revolutionary socialism, British political economy, and German classical philosophy—each had something in it that pointed beyond itself toward the transcendence of capitalism, something worthy of being redeemed. This is not the case with decolonial theory. If there is any immanence here, it is because the thinkers conscripted by this theory (Mariátegui, pre-1956 James, and Fanon between 1952 and 1956) deserve better, and should at least be spared the embarrassment of being associated with it.


Theodor Adorno: Frankfurt School sociologist and critical theorist trained in philosophy as well as musicology. While in America, on the run from Nazism, he collaborated on Dialectic of Enlightenment with his fellow émigré Max Horkheimer. Later he developed the notion of a “negative dialectic,” which clung to the enduring antagonisms and impasses left unresolved by history. The Anglophone reception of Adorno tends to downplay or ignore the Marxian dimensions of his thought.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Manumitted Haitian slave who became an accomplished general during the revolt against the French. Dessalines was Toussaint Louverture’s right-hand man, and was also a military genius. Yet he later betrayed Louverture and the Bélairs to Leclerc’s men in 1802–1803. Crowned himself emperor of Haiti in 1804, before he had the remaining white inhabitants of the island massacred. Unpopular, seen as a tyrant by his own people, his rivals assassinated him just two years later.

Enrique Dussel: Argentinian philosopher living in Mexican exile, influenced by the concept of “radical otherness” [altérité radicale] from Emmanuel Levinas. He believes that a sense of “exteriority” is missing from classical dialectics, an element that escapes their immanent logic yet sets them into motion. Dussel even asserts that this was Marx’s original conception with regard to living labor, but replaces the proletariat with “the people” [pueblo] as revolutionary social subject all the same.

Frantz Fanon: Martiniquan psychiatrist and philosopher later involved in the Algerian revolt against French colonial rule. Chiefly influenced by Freud, Hegel, and Marx, his brilliant analysis of racism in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) is today sadly overshadowed by his later call for Third World liberation in Wretched of the Earth (1961). Fanon’s commitment to humanism, as well as his warnings about the persistent dangers of nationalism, are often overlooked by his contemporary admirers.

G.W.F. Hegel: Idealist philosopher originally hailing from Bavaria, great systematizer of past thought. Writing as Napoleon’s men swept across Europe, Hegel saw the French Revolution as a turning point in human history—understood as freedom’s self-realization in time. Once one had been free, then some were free, and now all were free. Hegel’s name in philosophy will forever be linked with Aufhebung and Dialektik, a dynamic movement whereby opposites progressively unfold and are resolved.

C.L.R. James: Trinidadian Marxist, autodidact historian, and cricket enthusiast. A member of Trotsky’s Fourth International from the early thirties up until the end of the forties, when he joined with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs to form the Johnson-Forest tendency. James authored an excellent early account of the Comintern in 1936 and a groundbreaking study of The Black Jacobins, on the Haitian Revolution. He also dedicated several long essays and notebooks to dialectics.

Fredric Jameson: Literary theorist of an Hegelian-Marxist persuasion; also an accomplished movie critic and architectural commentator. Today he is probably most remembered for his investigation of Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Jameson has in recent years authored a book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, as well as an encyclopedic overview of dialectical thought entitled Valences of the Dialectic (2010)—a quite challenging but often rewarding read.

Antonio Labriola: Early Italian socialist, considered to be “a strict Marxist” by Engels. Lenin and Trotsky both held him in high esteem. “Unlike most Latin writers,” expressed the latter, “Labriola had mastered materialist dialectics.” Amadeo Bordiga, another fierce critic of Sorel and Sorelianism, called Labriola “one of the good guys” [uno dei buoni]. Steeped in the ideas of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, he helped pave the way for a more nuanced understanding of the materialist conception of history.

Georg Lukács: Hungarian philosopher and literary critic, best known for his essay collection History and Class Consciousness (1923), which sought to recover the Hegelian underpinnings of Marx’s method from both logical positivist and neo-Kantian adulterations. Most famously, he identified the proletariat as the revolutionary “subject-object” of history—i.e., the social agent responsible for its own emancipation. Also theorized the phenomenon of “reification” under capitalism. Cultural minister in the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic.

José Carlos Mariátegui: Peruvian Marxist principally inspired by the works of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Lenin. He joined the Left Opposition within the Comintern after Trotsky was expelled from the ussr in 1926, maintaining internationalist principles against Stalin’s slogan of “socialism in one country.” Mariátegui wrote a spirited Defense of Marxism in 1929 against the Belgian ex-Marxist (and later fascist collaborator) Hendrik de Man. Two years earlier he published Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality.

Moishe Postone: American Marxist and critical theorist writing within the Frankfurt School paradigm. Widely read throughout the world, but especially in German-speaking countries. His 1993 magnum opus, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, a systematic rereading of Marx’s mature writings, has been called by Loren Goldner “provocative and important, above all to critique.” Significantly, he recasts capital in the role of revolutionary subject-object of history, exaggerates somewhat the shortcomings of “traditional Marxism.”

  1. [1]Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (The Free Press. New York, NY: 1992), pp. 60–67.
  2. [2]George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2017), p. 1.
  3. [3]International Communist Party, “The Colonial Question: An Initial Balance Sheet,Il Programma Comunista no. 14 (1957).
  4. [4]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 11.
  5. [5]Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 2016), p. 36.
  6. [6]Ibid., pp. 76–77.
  7. [7]Gennaro Ascione, Science and the Decolonization of Social Theory: Unthinking Modernity (Palgrave Macmillan. New York, NY: 2016), p. 183.
  8. [8]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 11.
  9. [9]Ibid., p. 14.
  10. [10]Ibid., pp. 175–176.
  11. [11]Ibid., p. 153.
  12. [12]Ibid., p. 158.
  13. [13]Ibid., p. 118.
  14. [14]Ibid., p. 107.
  15. [15]Ibid., p. 21.
  16. [16]Loren Goldner, “The Universality of Marx,” New Politics (volume 29, no. 2: 1989), p. 86.
  17. [17]Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,” Globalization and the Decolonial Option (Routledge. New York, NY: 2010), p. 108.
  18. [18]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 118.
  19. [19]Ibid., pp. 108–113.
  20. [20]Ibid., p. 14. Mignolo insists even deconstruction must be decolonized: “Internal variability or différance cannot transcend colonial difference, as deconstruction has to be subsumed and transformed by decolonization, from a perspective of subalternity.” Walter Mignolo, Local Histories, Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ: 2000), p. 45.
  21. [21]“One constellation does not dispel another, but installs itself in the gaps of the former, and occupies its old neighborhoods, and proposes new signs: a new economy of the same places… Where there was the severely articulated matter of the dialectic, its astonishing passages from the celestial to the terrestrial state, there is now henceforth the cloudy matter of difference, its dusts, its errant multiplicities, its black and white holes—born apparently from dissemination of the dialectic.” François Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy, translated by Rocco Gangle (Continuum Books. New York, NY: 2010), p. 1.
  22. [22]Loren Goldner, “Ontological Difference and the War on the Social: Deconstruction and Deindustrialization,” (Unpublished pamphlet, August 2001).
  23. [23]Nearly twenty times.
  24. [24]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 117.
  25. [25]Ibid., p. 35.
  26. [26]Ibid., p. 34.
  27. [27]Ibid., pp. 10, 13–14, 81.
  28. [28]“When two phenomena are juxtaposed, at what point do they cease to be two separate items and become united in that very unity called juxtaposition? At what point does difference begin to relate? And in the name of what does one deny the right to call the juxtaposition of incommensurables an opposition?” Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2009), p. 36.
  29. [29]Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, translated by Ben Fowkes (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1971), p. 188.
  30. [30]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 115.
  31. [31]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Address to the Central Committee to the Communist League,” translator unlisted. Collected Works, Volume 10: 1849–1851 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1978), p. 277.
  32. [32]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics. pp. 7, 9, 48, 103, 216.
  33. [33]Ibid., p. 69.
  34. [34]Ibid., p. 28.
  35. [35]Ibid., p. 100.
  36. [36]Ibid., pp. 91, 96, 106.
  37. [37]Ibid., p. 8.
  38. [38]Ibid., pp. 111–112.
  39. [39]Ibid., p. 119.
  40. [40]Ibid., p. 111.
  41. [41]“Dependency theorists like Frank came to understand capitalism as a global structure, challenging both existing linear (as in modernization theory) or purportedly dialectical (as in Stalinist orthodoxy) stances.” Ibid., p. 107.
  42. [42]Enrique Dussel, Towards an Unknown Marx: A Commentary on the Manuscripts of 1861–1863, translated by Yolanda Angulo (Routledge. New York, NY: 2001), p. 210.
  43. [43]Marx was contrasted with Weber in Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment (Macmillan Press Ltd. New York, NY: 1978), pp. 25–91. By the time of his last major work, both Marx and Weber were “narrowly Eurocentric.” ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (UC Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1998), pp. 12–24.
  44. [44]The phrase “paradigm of totality” occurs no fewer than thirty-five times in Ciccariello-Maher’s dissertation, from which the text of Decolonizing Dialectics is scavenged. Mercifully, this is cut down to only two occurrences in the edited version. Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, pp. 18, 109.
  45. [45]Ibid., p. 41.
  46. [46]Ibid., pp. 14–15.
  47. [47]Ibid., p. 176.
  48. [48]George Ciccariello-Maher, “Decolonizing Theory from Within or Without? A Reply to Baum,” Constellations (volume 23, no. 1: Spring 2016), p. 136.
  49. [49]George Ciccariello-Maher. “#NotAllEuropeans? Brennan’s Borrowed Light,” Theory & Event (volume 18, no. 4: 2015).
  50. [50]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 2.
  51. [51]George Ciccariello-Maher, “So Much the Worse for the Whites: Dialectics of the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy (volume XXII, no. 1: 2014), p. 23.
  52. [52]Ibid., pp. 25–26.
  53. [53]Ibid., p. 32.
  54. [54]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, pp. 18–19.
  55. [55]Ibid., p. 130.
  56. [56]Ibid., p. 147.
  57. [57]Ibid., p. 129.
  58. [58]Enrique Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics, translated by George Ciccariello-Maher (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2008), pp. 78–79.
  59. [59]See his two previous releases. First: George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2013). Second: George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2016).
  60. [60]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 141.
  61. [61]“[The] dynamic and overlapping movement of these multiple identities in Venezuela today preserves the heterogeneity of the popular bloc, the part that aspires ultimately to re-create the whole.” Ibid., p. 146.
  62. [62]Goldner, “Ontological Difference and the War on the Social.”
  63. [63]Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation, p. 158.
  64. [64]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 114.
  65. [65]Ibid., p. 160.
  66. [66]Ibid., p. 162.
  67. [67]Ibid., p. 165.
  68. [68]“Some decolonial nationalisms display a ruthless antipathy toward ingrained hierarchy.” Ibid., p. 170.
  69. [69]Ibid., p. 126.
  70. [70]Ibid., p. 104.
  71. [71]Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation, p. 158.
  72. [72]“Dussel’s severe critique of dialectics and embrace of analectics… arguably shuns internal conflict to face the Other.” Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 117.
  73. [73]Ibid., p. 8.
  74. [74]Ibid., p. 113.
  75. [75]Enrique Dussel. Ethics of Liberation in an Age of Globalization and Exclusion, translated by Eduardo Mendieta (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 1998), p. 559.
  76. [76]Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, translator unlisted. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845–1848 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1976), p. 168.
  77. [77]“During my stay in Paris in 1844, I came into personal contact with Proudhon… To a certain extent I am to blame for his ‘sophistication,’ as the English call the adulteration of commercial goods. I infected him, greatly to his detriment, with Hegelianism, which he could not study properly.” Karl Marx, “On Proudhon,” translator unlisted. Collected Works, Volume 20: 1864–1868 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1985), p. 27.
  78. [78]“Dialectical thought is like a spring—and springs are made of tempered steel.” Leon Trotsky, “Problems of Civil War,” translated by A.L. Preston. Challenge of the Left Opposition: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1923–1925 (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1975), p. 198.
  79. [79]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 9.
  80. [80]Ibid., p. 19, 43.
  81. [81]Ibid., pp. 10–12.
  82. [82]Ibid., p. 173.
  83. [83]Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, translated by Nicholas Jacobs (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2009), p. 21, translation amended.
  84. [84]Theodor W. Adorno, Introduction to Sociology, translated by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2000), p. 38.
  85. [85]Antonio Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, translated by Charles H. Kerr (Charles H. Kerr & Company. Chicago, IL: 1908), pp. 169–170.
  86. [86]G.W.F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, Part 1: The Science of Logic, translated by Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel Dahlstrom (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2010), p. 129.
  87. [87]Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, translated by Rodney Livingstone (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1973), p. 177.
  88. [88]Hegel, Encyclopedia, Part 1, p. 39, translation modified.
  89. [89]Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” translated by Clemens Dutt, Collected Works, Volume 3: 1843–1844 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975), pp. 182, 187.
  90. [90]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 183.
  91. [91]“If production of absolute surplus-value was the expression of the formal subsumption of labor under capital, then production of relative surplus-value can be viewed as its real subsumption.” Marx, Capital, Volume 1, pp. 1024–25.
  92. [92]Théorie Communiste, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Endnotes (no. 1: 2008), pp. 154–207.
  93. [93]G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977), p. 2.
  94. [94]Antonio Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, translated by Ernest Untermann (Charles H. Kerr. & Company. Chicago, IL: 1912), p. 164.
  95. [95]“This multifaceted concept of exteriority grants a degree of exteriority to the worker, confirmed in Dussel’s systematic rereading of the role of living labor in Marx.” Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 214.
  96. [96]Dussel, Towards an Unknown Marx, p. 240.
  97. [97]Ibid., p. 8.
  98. [98]“The role Dussel assigns to living labor betrays the Ricardian cast of his thinking, as living labor is a generally applicable category and not an historically determinate one like wage labor.” Patrick Murray, The Mismeasure of Wealth: Essays on Marx and Social Form (Brill Academic Publishers. Boston, MA: 2016), p. 513.
  99. [99]“If the capitalist would pay living labor the totality of the value produced, wages would be equal to the value of the product and there could not be any profit.” Dussel, Towards an Unknown Marx, p. 10.
  100. [100]“There is significant overlap between Dussel’s concept of the people and Ernesto Laclau’s efforts to reclaim the concept of populism. However, the two differ above all in the concreteness and contextual content that Dussel ascribes to his concept of the people. While Dussel’s people seeks to stretch the limitations of Marxist categories—in particular, the working class as revolutionary subject—he is in no sense post-Marxist. Laclau’s populist logic, by contrast, pays a heavy price for its post-Marxism, gaining its universal traction at the expense of all particular content, through an explicit privileging of ‘political logics rather than social contents.’ We might therefore be tempted to re-pose the Fanonian critique of Hegelian universalism between Dussel and Laclau.” Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, pp. 131–132.
  101. [101]Enrique Dussel, “Ethics is the Original Philosophy, or the Barbarian Words Coming From the Third World,” translated by Fernando Gomez, boundary 2 (volume 28, no. 1: Spring 2001), pp. 35–36.
  102. [102]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 8.
  103. [103]Sergio López, “Venezuela and the ‘Bolivarian Revolution,’ Part 1,” Internationalist Perspective (no. 51–52: Fall 2009).
  104. [104]Sergio López, “Venezuela and the ‘Bolivarian Revolution,’ Part 2,” Internationalist Perspective (no. 53: Spring 2010).
  105. [105]Marco Torres, “The Dead Left: Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution,” Platypus Review (no. 25: July 2010), p. 2.
  106. [106]Ibid., p. 9.
  107. [107]John Stanley, The Sociology of Virtue: The Political and Social Theories of Georges Sorel (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1981), pp. 310–342.
  108. [108]Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2009), p. 15.
  109. [109]Timothy Brennan, Borrowed Light, Volume 1: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2014), p. 13.
  110. [110]George Ciccariello-Maher, Identity Against Totality: The Counterdiscourse of Separation Beyond the Decolonial Turn (UC Berkeley PhD Thesis: Spring 2010), p. 192.
  111. [111]Moishe Postone, “Deconstruction as Social Critique: Derrida on Marx and the New World Order,” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History (vol. 37, no. 3: October 1998), p. 383.
  112. [112]Individuals are revolutionary insofar as they “abandon their own standpoint in order to adopt that of the proletariat [so verlassen sie ihren eigenen Standpunkt, um sich auf den des Proletariats zu stellen].” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, translated by Samuel Moore and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6: 1848 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1976), p. 494.
  113. [113]“This image of a frozen reality nevertheless caught up in an unremitting ghostly movement at once becomes meaningful seen from the standpoint of the proletariat.” Lukács, “The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, p. 181.
  114. [114]Georg Lukács, Tailism and the Dialectic, translated by Esther Leslie (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2000), p. 88.
  115. [115]Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 103.
  116. [116]Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, translated by Julius Katzer, Collected Works, Volume 31 (Progress Publishers. Moscow, ussr: 1966), p. 56.
  117. [117]Peter Hudis, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press. London, England: 2014), p. 64.
  118. [118]Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Duke University Press. Durham, NC: 2011), p. 143.
  119. [119]Goldner, “The Universality of Marx.”
  120. [120]“As a Puerto Rican in the United States… I was dissatisfied with the work produced by the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. They underestimated in their research ethnic and racial perspectives coming from the region while at the same time privileging predominantly Western thinkers, like the so-called ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’: Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, and Guha. Of these four, three are Eurocentric. Only one, Ranajit Guha, is from the Global South. By privileging Westerners as their central theoretical apparatus, they betrayed their goal to produce subaltern studies.” Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn: Beyond Political-Economic Paradigms,” Cultural Studies (volume 21, nos. 2–3 March/May 2007), p. 211.
  121. [121]“…insofar as Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida have been acknowledged as grounding the postcolonial canon.” Walter Mignolo, “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality, and Grammar of Decoloniality,” Globalization and the Decolonial Option, p. 306.
  122. [122]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 153.
  123. [123]José Carlos Mariátegui, “Nationalism and Internationalism.” Translated by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker. Anthology (Monthly Review Press. New York, NY: 2011), p. 261.
  124. [124]José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anti-Imperialist Point of View.” Anthology, p. 268.
  125. [125]Ibid., p. 272.
  126. [126]Vladimir Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.” Collected Works, Volume 22: December 1915-July 1916, translated by Yuri Sdobnikov (Progress Publishers. Moscow, ussr: 1964), p. 357.
  127. [127]José Carlos Mariátegui, “The World Crisis and the Peruvian Proletariat,” Anthology, p. 297.
  128. [128]José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet of Amauta,” Anthology, p. 129.
  129. [129]“Mariátegui ‘invented’ the Sorel he needed, creating a historical personage that was sometimes quite distant from the real historical referent. This is the case when he makes Sorel a ‘determining influence’ in the spiritual development of Lenin—a purely imaginary link that certainly has no basis in Lenin’s rare references to Sorel.” Michael Löwy, “Marxism and Romanticism in the Writings of José Carlos Mariátegui,” translated by Penelope Duggan, Latin American Perspectives (volume 25, no. 4: July 1998), p. 81.
  130. [130]See his changing opinion of Marcus Garvey. Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 187.
  131. [131]Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MI: 2008), p. 121.
  132. [132]Matthew Quest, “C.L.R. James’ Conflicted Intellectual Legacies on Mao Tse-Tung’s China,” Insurgent Notes (March 11, 2013).
  133. [133]“As in the beginning, so it is today. The Russian Revolution depends on the revolution in Western Europe.” C.L.R. James. World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Martin Secker and Warburg. London, England: 1937), p. 420.
  134. [134]C.L.R. James. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (Lawrence Hill. Westport, CT: 2005), pp. 121–126.
  135. [135]C.L.R. James. “Lectures on The Black Jacobins.” Small Axe (no. 8. September 2000), p. 86.
  136. [136]W.E.B. Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (The World Publishing Company. Cleveland, OH: 1962), p. 354.
  137. [137]George Ciccariello-Maher. Tweet published 25 Dec 2016, 8:53 AM.
  138. [138]C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1963), pp. 373–374.
  139. [139]Moishe Postone, “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism,” Public Culture (volume 18, no. 1: 2006), pp. 106–107.
  140. [140]James, The Black Jacobins, p. 333.
  141. [141]Ibid., p. 346.
  142. [142]Karl Marx, “Bolivar y Ponte,” Collected Works, Volume 18: 1857–1862 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1987), pp. 234–236.
  143. [143]Karl Marx, “Letter to Friedrich Engels, 14 February 1858,” translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Volume 40: 1856–1859 (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1983), p. 266, translation emended.
  144. [144]Marc-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State Against the Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (Monthly Review Press. New York, NY: 1990), p. 49.
  145. [145]“The historic importance of Wretched of the Earth to the New Left sadly overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in Black Skin, White Masks.” Sunit Singh, “Review: Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon,” Platypus Review (no. 21: March 2010), p. 1.
  146. [146]Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics, p. 71.
  147. [147]Ibid., p. 76.
  148. [148]Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (Grove Press. New York, NY: 2007), pp. 203–205.
  149. [149]Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” translated by Haakon Chevalier, Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays (Grove Press. New York, NY: 1967), p. 41.
  150. [150]Loren Goldner, “Theses for Discussion,” Insurgent Notes (August 2, 2011).
  151. [151]George Ciccariello-Maher, “Yes, Philando Castile was Killed for the Color of His Skin,” Jacobin Magazine (July 19, 2016).


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Spencer,

    Ross, great essay on Ciccariello-Maher, especially the way you trace his intellectual influences and relate his book to larger trends in academia. While reading your essay, it came to my mind that by way of all this decolonial and deconstructive theory, it seems that Ciccariello-Maher has returned to a very “enlightenement” thinker without even knowing it—Rousseau.

    You quote Ciccariello-Maher as writing: “By breaking with a purely internal relation of oppression, Dussel’s pueblo breaks with a narrowly Marxist focus on economic exploitation and the working class as a revolutionary subject, providing a new conceptual framework to accommodate colonial economic conditions.”

    Isn’t this concept of “pueblo” just a return to the Rousseau of the “Social Contract” with a post-colonial twist? Specifically in the way that Rousseau centers “the people” in purely political terms and then goes on to center political life itself through a romantic affect. Of course, Ciccariello-Maher would probably respond that Rousseau’s focus on Sovereinity is “totalizing” and hence not in line with his project, but Rousseau’s idea of the “whole” is in the context of a self-contained people that will always continue to exist apart from other peoples (a hallmark of antiquity that certain theories of “marginalization” have now taken up)—a far stretch from totality in either the Marxist or the Hegelian sense of the word.

    What does it say when a thinker goes through all sorts of twists and turns in order to decolonize the enlightenment, only to blatantly return to one of the most classical representatives of (premarxist) enlightenment thought? I haven’t read Ciccariello-Maher’s book yet, so I am interested to know your thoughts on this idea. Again, great essay

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