Contents Disappointed Utopia 1. Radical Philosophy After 1968

Aimé Césaire on the street: Race and impossible identifications

The 1968 protest movement, in its oft-Marxist internationalism, was laudably conscious of social class and imperialism, and it sought to support migrant workers in France. Yet it systematically exploited and marginalized women, pushing them to the sidelines or giving them secretarial and domestic work, as we saw in the Introduction. And it remained largely indifferent to the forces of racialization that continued to organize capitalism in the postcolonial moment.

This becomes apparent if we inspect the famous surrealist slogans that emerged in May 1968: “We are all German Jews,” “We are all undesirables.” These surreal declarations were acts of counter-identification.[7] After the Holocaust, the German Jews had been constituted as global emblems of oppression and violence. When, then, would not say, performatively, that they too are German Jews? Who would count themselves out of this gesture of seemingly universal solidarity with the annihilated?

This is not a rhetorical question: there were those who hesitated to chant this slogan. Consider a memory of 1968 recounted by Olivier Revault d’Allonnes, a protester who later became a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne.[8]

I remember a street march in 1968 that was going towards the National Assembly. In the first row there was [Jewish historian] Pierre Vidal-Naquet, there was Césaire, there was [exiled Spanish Communist] Semprun and other people. And me, I was in the second row. That very morning, [the right-wing newspaper] Le Figaro had labeled [student leader] Daniel Cohn-Bendit “The Jew Cohn-Bendit,” and [Communist newspaper] L’Humanité the same day had said, “The German Cohn-Bendit.” And up from the midst of the march came the slogan that would become famous, “We are all German Jews.”
So me, I shouted, without being either Jewish or German, that I was German-Jewish, and then Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Semprun, etc, set themselves to crying out, “We are all German Jews.” And I can still see Semprun turn towards Césaire, who remained silent, and asking him, “Why don’t you shout with us?” And Césaire answered: “Because no one will believe me.”
And then, finally, he shouted it out.
[Périn and d’Allonnes 2010:112]

Revault d’Allonnes then had the audacity to comment, retrospectively, that access to the universal required Césaire to renounce Blackness as a subject position:

I find superb this “No one will believe me.” It’s clear that when one looked at Aimé Césaire, one seriously doubted that he was a German Jew. And I think that at this precise moment, Aimé Césaire passed from négritude to the universal. Well, for me, in any case. He was no longer the Black man [le nègre] that he declared himself to be, he was a human being and, therefore, he didn’t care about labels. He was a human being, period. He passed from negritude to universality, that is from a political to a philosophical attitude.
[Périn and d’Allonnes 2010:112]

As a descendent of German Jews myself, I must say that I deplore the Eurocentrism and patronizing anti-anti-racism that pervade this stance. It was as if claims to German Jewishness were cast as viable ways to arrive at one’s universal humanity, whereas claims to Blackness were framed as a collapse into a limited politics of the particular. And it is no accident, one must add, that this judgment emerged from the streets of Paris, which have long served as a resonance chamber for melodramas of putatively universal masculine judgment. Revault d’Allones viewed Paris as the prime intellectual theatre of France, France as the prime intellectual theatre of the world, and street protests as a prime site of political authenticity and intellectual realism. The streets of Paris during a protest thus became a vantage point for judging identities and sorting them into universals and particulars. (There was “a general preference within the [May 68] movement for the universal over the specific” [Gordon 2011:94].) Meanwhile, Revault d’Allones showed that he was not above skin-color styles of racial classification: he seemed comfortable in his common-sensical judgment that a mere “look” at Aimé Césaire sufficed to show his lack of German-Jewishness. He presumed the racial categories that he wished to transcend.

Yet contra Revault d’Allones, I would not necessarily read Césaire’s hesitation about identifying with German Jews solely as a commitment to négritude. It strikes me also as a pre-emptive reaction to French racist discipline. Césaire intuited that the white European marchers surrounding him were not going to believe his claim to belong to their collective. In his refusal to participate in an utterance premised on excluding him, he revealed the very limits of the left universalism that organized this mythical event of radical politics.

Césaire’s hesitation was fleeting; in the end, he too chanted the required slogan. But this incident shows us how French left radicalism, in its classic 1968 version, remained a tacitly racialized form. The May movement was happy to spurn the traditional French authorities and to have Aimé Césaire in the front row of protesters. But it did not do enough to parse the history of racial colonialism that organized French political culture. This avoidance of racial analysis would haunt the decades that followed.

  1. The slogans worked against the definition of normative Frenchness, which has long been organized around anti-German sentiment, naturalized Catholicism, and bourgeois elegance (Asad 2006, Harvey 2003).  ↩

  2. Revault d’Allonnes was also a close friend of François Châtelet, the charismatic patriarch who chaired Paris 8’s Philosophy Department in the 1970s and early 1980s.  ↩

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