Diverging Anticolonial Theories Between Albert Memmi and Glen Coulthard
Albert Memmi and Glen Coulthard are two prominent radical political theorists in the field of anticolonial thought. The two hold quite staunch positions against progressivism and this commitment highlights their many similarities. While Memmi critiques Western concepts of normative development by arguing that the supposed benefits brought by colonialism are only for the benefit of the colonizer’s needs, Coulthard comparably argues against the idea that certain aspects of capitalist development are necessary conditions for the formation of revolutionary consciousness (Memmi, 157; Coulthard, 152). However, reading Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized and Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks side by side in today’s day and age, something seems to be amiss between them. While they seem to hold similar philosophical standpoints, their theories differ when applied to the realities of Algeria and Canada.
The question is, can Memmi’s framework be applicable to the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada today as well as Coulthard’s Indigenous resurgence theory? For one, they do write from different geographical locations and time periods. Memmi writes during a time where anticolonial revolution is on the horizon, Algerians are the majority and colonization had lasted under one hundred years. Differently, Coulthard’s situation is one of more than five hundred years of colonialism and Indigenous people making up a minority in the colonial state. For another, Memmi specifically states that his aim of writing The Colonizer and the Colonized is not to search for solutions or map out a blueprint for protest, but to reproduce authentic portraits of the two protagonists in relationship to each other within colonial situations (Memmi 189). At the same time however, this portrait is prescribed to all colonial situations and is thus made out to be universal. Therefore, whereas the problem could be dissolved by understanding their writing from different situations and contexts, Memmi’s insistence on the universality of his framework as well as his centrality to anticolonial theory makes this question one that is relevant to questions on how to move forward toward decolonization. Coulthard too states that decolonization needs to be a universal process, requiring allyship and international solidarity. So then, is there a way to harmonize these two theories by making up for surface level situational or time differences? If not, what premises make them incompatible?
This paper argues that nuanced yet fundamental divergences exist between Memmi and Coulthard’s pieces in terms of their understandings of colonialism and its sustainability of the lack thereof. Additionally, while their politics of refusal are largely coherent their ideas of decolonization or postcolonialism deviate. Finally, their degrees of commitment to their means once the end is reached are not alike and lead to deeper theoretical questions.
COLONIALISM, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE LACK THEREOF
Between Memmi and Coulthard, one can detect differences in their framework of colonialism in the way that they understand the oppressive system’s natural sustainability or lack thereof. Memmi argues clearly that if his portraits are accurate, it would be “impossible for the colonial situation to last because it is impossible to arrange it properly” (Memmi, 190). He goes on to state that the only two processes through which colonialism is meant to sustain itself — extermination and assimilation of the colonized people — would end the system itself because the position of the colonizer depends on the existence of an exploited, colonized class. However, the situation in Canada is that Indigenous peoples in fact pose obstacles to the exploitation of the land through their existence alone. Because of this, Canada is a state founded and built through slavery which gave it a replenishable exploiting class rather than relying on the colonized. In this way, the elimination of Indigenous peoples is in fact crucial to the sustainability of the settler colony and is thus made a systemic process through physical and cultural genocide and systemic governmental neglect of Indigenous livelihoods. What’s more, assimilation is written into Canadian law through the Indian Act which naturally works to take away people’s status as recognized First Nations persons as generations go by (Coulthard, 159). Although Indigenous people also experience the inability to successfully assimilate into settler society even if they desired to — a reality that Memmi uses to argue for colonialism’s inevitable failure — the fact of the matter is that on paper, more and more Indigenous people lose their status and thus their power up against an increasingly strengthening colonial state apparatus.
This problem may begin to be resolved by locating Coulthard in the present day, where there are no longer slaves and that people with this ancestry are now considered part of the colonizer class so long as they don’t have Indigenous ancestry. But, because the initial colonial triad of First Nations, slaves, and settlers is what created the state, this foundation ought to have relevance in colonial frameworks written today. This fact complicates Memmi’s clean portrait of the colonizer and the colonized as two opposing groups as well as his argument that extermination and assimilation of colonized people lead to the eventual failure of colonialism.
Subsequently, Memmi putting the impossibility of colonialism at the hands of the existence and absence of colonized people creates further theoretical limitations in comparison to Coulthard. Memmi states that “only the complete liquidation of colonization” including the physical departure of colonizers are required for decolonization (Memmi, 195). By focusing on social interaction between peoples, Memmi excludes the effects of colonization of non-human entities and the land itself. When Coulthard articulates his understanding of Indigenous resurgence in Canada, he grounds his theory in the substantive value of this resurgence itself. Not simply a transfer of power, he argues that Indigenous Peoples in Canada have foundational commitments to protecting the land that are embedded in governance systems, principles, beliefs and ways of life (Coulthard, 170). In this way, even if all colonized peoples were hypothetically eliminated and the dissolution of the colonial relationship dynamic dissolved, colonization would still exploit the land itself and the non-human being that need it to survive. In addition, the Canadian situation has seen a more gradual process of Indigenous revolution or resurgence because complete material revolt of a minority against a long-entrenched majority would be unlikely. Whereas waves of French citizens left Algeria at independence, the task of relocating settlers to their ancestral countries of origin may be a lot more difficult.
DIFFERENT WAYS FORWARD: POLITICS OF REFUSAL AND NEW ORDERS TO COME
Memmi and Coulthard contrast each other in another way in terms of their visions of decolonized and postcolonial societies. While Memmi airs on the side of newness and neutrality, Coulthard outlines visions of specifically Indigenous resurgence movements. Memmi’s priority is that the formally colonized people have completely free choice in their lands to either reject or remain with their past, traditions and religions, to be a nationalist or to not (Memmi 196). At this point, “having abandoned the colonial framework, it is important for all of us to discover a new way of living with that [colonial] relationship” (Memmi, 190). Now, Coulthard would probably agree because both of them are pointing to politics of refusal: that colonized peoples should not have to argue for their freedom within colonial categories, nor within what myths and labels used to define them in the past. Freedom of choice means the freedom of having to negotiate the state of one’s nation or people, of having to bargain over space to live out one’s sovereignty (Coulthard, 159).
However, if Memmi is arguing that colonized peoples should live in a situation where they get to start from a clean slate and design their own life however they want to — keeping in mind the discovery of new ways of living in relation to past effects of colonialism still — Coulthard’s Indigenous resurgence framework is not so neutral. Having a duty to the land and a commitment to the governance systems, beliefs and principles that “support the wellbeing of contemporary [Indigenous] people”, Coulthard’s vision of decolonization has a more established tone (Coulthard, 156). His tone sounds more hopeful, almost confident, in the ways of life that ground his people, whereas Memmi’s wording is noticeable weary of returning to the past. As if it might trap Algerians back into their roles as a colonized people relegated to the past. Importantly, Coulthard argues that Indigenous resurgence has been possible precisely because people have turned to their long-embedded ways of knowing and engage in the process of actively building the relationships required in a world alternative to capitalist imperialism (Coulthard, 166). If a decolonized world is hoped to work in ways that best suit the land and Indigenous peoples, then this ‘return’ to traditions and governance systems ought not be restrictive. Whereas Memmi conceptualizes this return as surrendering to one’s only option, Coulthard argues that this return is exactly the process necessary to decolonize the world.
Perhaps the situation is indeed different from Memmi’s standpoint because Algerians did not live the same sort of land-based living as do Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Could it be that what Algerians would return to is primarily religion whereas Indigenous Peoples have thousands of years of fully established governance systems and ways of life and economy? In the end, who is to say how different or not Algerian society was from European ways of living, and who is to judge how central people’s traditions — whatever they are based in — are to people’s ways of life. Therefore, this problem stands as one unable to be resolved.
PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS: THE MEANS AND THE ENDS
Being staunch anti-progressivists, both theorists call to the need for complete revolution and the complete refusal of colonial systems, seeing as they are built in opposition to the existence of colonized people. In fact, both clearly state that the necessity of cutting ties with capitalist dependency is the only way to resurgence: “He does without tobacco if it bears the colonialist’s stamp!” (Memmi, 173). This declaration closely parallels Coulthard’s assertion that, “for Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it” (Coulthard, 173). Coulthard explains that participating in the building of contemporary Indigenous economies actively reconnects people to their land-based practices and is not simply an act of negation (Coulthard, 172). This understanding connects to Memmi’s explanation of religion as a place and means of colonized community-building, communication and communion (Memmi, 177).
Nevertheless, Memmi is quick to remind us that colonized people do not have to remain with their past, traditions, ethnic characteristics once colonized people have fought for their own free choice in a postcolonial world (Memmi, 196). While he considers remaining with them or rejecting them as equally respectable choices in a land of the free, the fact that these are choices suggests that Memmi conceptualizes these institutions as means or tools for revolution. We can choose to get rid of the tools or keep them depending on how well they suit the colonized, but this logically infers that traditions and past do not constitute a prefigured ‘end’. Now, Coulthard does not stand on the complete opposite end of Memmi’s view. Coulthard explains that critical resurgence depends on the basis of cultural dynamism: not literal return to past, but the recreation of the past’s flourishment in order to support contemporary life. More specifically cultural dynamism “requires that we reclaim the fluidity of our traditions, not the rigidity of colonialism” (Coulthard, 165). But once the colonized choses which ancestral gifts are appropriate to bring into the future, these necessarily become both the means and ends, collapsing the distinction altogether. This distinction collapse is a central element that constitutes Indigenous resurgence as prefigurative politics.
Furthermore, it sounds as if Memmi’s experience of being relegated to the past as a colonized person, forbidden to plan and envision a future nor the present, deeply affects his philosophical theory (Memmi, 146). When discussing anticolonial revolution, he speaks of the need to conquer oneself and be free in relation to their nation or religion (Memmi, 196). While still anti-progressive and critical of developmentalist norms, the way Memmi describes decolonization sounds noticeably different from Coulthard’s discussion of revival and resurgence. Does this tone have foundational effects on the nature and direction of their revolutionary politics? This contrast begs the question of who is being avenged through anticolonial revolution. Surely, Coulthard feels a responsibility to recover, save and protect his lost ancestry and knowledge systems. He avenges the past, his ancestors and the land. On the other hand, Memmi sounds like he seeks revenge for the future of Algeria from colonial oppression.
In conclusion, Memmi and Coulthard’s anticolonial theories do diverge on some nuanced albeit fundamental premises. Their different positions on colonialism’s natural course and inevitable ending can be due to the fact of their writing from different colonial situations, however Memmi’s aim to write a universal framework for the colonial situation is thus weakened by the reality of the colonial situation of Canada in the present day. Moreover, while both theorists discuss politics of refusal, they have different degrees of commitment to their means of revolution. Lastly, a slight divergence of temporality in terms of who their revolutions fight for, their ancestors or their descendants. Overall, it is important to question and compare understandings of basic premises such as these in order to properly position Coulthard’s Indigenous resurgence and Memmi’s portraits of colonialism theory within the radical political field of anticolonial theory at large.
Coulthard, Glen Sean, and Taiaiake Alfred, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) <https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816679645.001.0001>
Memmi, Albert, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 3rd ed. (London: Earthscan, 2003)