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Edward Said and Third-World Marxism

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 105-126 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0040

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I

Because so many questions have been asked of Said’s work in bad faith, many who have learned from and leaned on his thinking, and who are in awe of his erudition and the spaciousness of his writings, may remain inhibited from asking any at all. Such reticence would be untrue to Said’s insistence that there should be no solidarity without criticism, and that the labor of criticism must include attention to “countercurrents, ironies, and even contradictions” (Said 2004, 96). It is in this spirit that I will consider Said’s uneasy relationship with Marxism, one which has attracted frequent commentary, even if a larger study addressing the incompatibility of his own eclectic historiography with the totalizing explanatory method integral to this tradition remains to be written. More than twenty years ago Michael Sprinker, describing Said as “a non-communist intellectual on the anti-imperialist left,” noted that Said made selective use of Marxist concepts and paradigms while slighting Marxism “as a coherent—if not unproblematically unified—system of thought and action,” at the core of which is the notion and analysis of the capitalist system . Thus Sprinker notes that although Said praised Marxist figures in the anti-imperialist struggles, he did so without foregrounding “the unity and consistency in thought that their political and methodological commitments impose” (Sprinker 1993, 3–29).1

In this commentary I will consider the radical Third-World Marxist tradition and its intersections with nationalism, with a view to indicating that Said did not attend to its specificity and depth. Moreover, this absence underlies and permeates Said’s discussion of the anti-imperialist theorists and activists (Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, C. L. R. James) whom he embraced as comrades in the struggle while omitting to identify them as Marxists. I contend that because Said inaccurately aligned them with bourgeois nationalists and warriors of racial discrimination—Tagore, Garvey, Du Bois, Blyden—he did not engage with the analytic substance of their writings. This inconsistency is repeated in Said’s refusal to recognize Marxism as inherently and inescapably critical , while simultaneously making known his admiration for this very quality in the work of Lukács, Goldmann, and Adorno, whose writings he introduced to a generation of graduate students at Columbia and beyond who, in the US of the Cold War period, were without academic access to Marxist thought. Such gestures of goodwill, however, did not extend to the dialectical practices to which these esteemed figures were wedded. Nor did it inhibit Said from translating his adamantine misconception of dialectics into hostile misrepresentations in the case of his reading of Adorno, where he sought to detach the thinker from his thought.

However, while addressing the tensions in a significant body of work that is haunted by but resistant to Marxism, I want to observe that Said’s abjurations are more complicated than those carelessly thrown into the discussion by many post-Marxists. If Said acknowledged a dislike of all “systems,” he also conceded that he had “been more influenced by Marxists than by Marxism or any other ism ,” an inclination registered in his many declarations of an unaffiliated radicalism and apparent in his writing since the 1970s (1984, 29). This was when he knowingly and eloquently brought politics to his academic projects, contending that the social and ideological were intrinsic and not just “context” for his study of rhetoric, narrative, and form; when he urged the responsibility of professional criticism to engage with matters of inequality, injustice, and oppression, scorned the pretensions and timidity of the entrenched professoriat, and castigated intellectuals for failing to undertake the dissident functions of an intelligentsia. In his many essays and interviews, he insisted that it was the responsibility of intellectuals to make visible “the actual affiliations that exist between the world of ideas and scholarship on the one hand, and the world of brute politics, corporate and state power, and military force on the other” (Said 2000, 119). Optimistically, he maintained that the representations produced by the intellectual “are always tied to and ought to remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the...



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