by Kenan Malik
‘I denounce European colonialism’, wrote CLR James, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ (1)
James was one of the great radicals of the twentieth century, an anti-imperialist, a superb historian of black struggles, a Marxist who remained one even when it was no longer fashionable to be so. But today, James’ defence of ‘Western civilisation’ would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.
To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is ‘Western’ – by which most mean modernism and the ideas of the Enlightenment – in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world – a project that James unashamedly championed – is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive.
‘Subjugation’, according to the philosopher David Goldberg, ‘defines the order of the Enlightenment: subjugation of nature by human intellect, colonial control through physical and cultural domination, and economic superiority through mastery of the laws of the market’ (2). The mastery of nature and the rational organisation of society, which were once seen as the basis of human emancipation, have now become the sources of human enslavement.
Enlightenment universalism, such critics argue, is racist because it seeks to impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples. ‘The universalising discourses of modern Europe and the United States’, argues Edward Said, ‘assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world.’ (3)
Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: ‘Every ingredient of the Holocaust… was normal… in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society.’ (4)