New OAC online seminar Emancipatory Politics - A Critique (Nov 23 To Dec 5)


Welcome to a new seminar which has some unique features. Chief of these is that it will discuss a whole book, not just a paper. Emancipatory Politics - A Critique edited by Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah (both anthropologists at the London School of Economics) is the first book to be published by OAC Press ( You can visit the book here and download it as a single pdf or individual chapters. We also intend to make print copies available for purchase on demand. The book is issued with a cultural commons licence which places minimal limits on use. Equally the authors may subsequently publish the material without restriction.

For our present purposes, the main focus will be on taking an overview of the main themes of the work; but please feel free to raise questions or comments on any part of it that catches your interest. There is no organized sequence. The editors and I will be happy to respond to your contributions as they come. We also invite the individual authors to take part on either or both sides of the fence.The point of having a seminar that lasts two weeks is to allow for further reading and reflection; and our responses need not be immediate.

The book aims to show that movements for a better world, with and without armed struggle, are still active in postcolonial states, having flourished in the 1960s and 70s when Mao Zedong's influence was great. The movements analyzed here are still to a significant degree Maoist, but other revolutionary traditions also play a part. The case studies include two commentaries on armed struggle in contemporary India, the examples of FARC in Colombia and the Communist Party of the Philippines, the rise to power of Maosts in Nepal and two cases where revolutionary movements achieved state power, in Nicaragua (the Sandinistas) and Mozambique (Frelimo). To these the editors add a substantial introduction and theoretical afterword which combine a hopeful vision with critical reflections. The book is thus remarkable for its "grounded empirical critique". Most chapters lend historical depth to their accounts.

By "emancipatory politics" Feuchtwang and Shah mean "political activities that aim to end exploitation and enhance participatory democracy through which leadership can be held to account on a daily as well as periodic basis, in the workplace and beyond". A major focus is on the dynamics of armed struggle, but these are always influenced by shifts in political organization, ideology, economic forms and the need to mobilise popular support. In some cases, these factors assume greater prominence than fighting as such.

The editors identify three inter-related themes. 1. The tension between mass organization and the party in charge of the armed force. Democratic centralism may lead to an inflexible inability to accommodate local conditions. 2. This raises th equestion of the relationship between democracy and emancipatory politics. The party sometimes becomes unaccountable to the people it claims to serve. 3. Analysis of the classes, issues and alliances involved in the struggle for emancipation is essential. The answers chosen often turn out to be wrong, but the cases presented here also provide many interesting solutions.

The OAC is a network devoted to exploring anthropology's potential to contribute to the making of a better world. Yet anthropologists rarely study war and revolution. This volume is unique in my experience for its open embrace of the spirit of revolution and the violence it often entails. Perhaps that is why it is here and not (yet) in some glossy publisher's catalogue. I hope that members will take up this issue more generally, as well as addressing the contents of this book.

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A Group, Emancipatory Politics, has been opened here. It has until now been a shell. The aim is for more restricted discussion of the book to take place there. I have given an example of how to add a discussion, but please add your own after you have become a member. The Groups are not visible from th emain page and you will be given notice of new posts only if you are a member. The idea was for for this more specialised discussion to continue when the main one was over. But do not hesitate to make use of the facility now.

A version of this notice has been added to the main discussion here (second paragraph).

With an eye to Steven Gardiner's points about category thinking and war, and Ryan pointing to the historically contingent reasons why people may turn to armed struggle I had a couple of critical comments on the book that it might be useful to air. 

War is a category that invokes categories-- above all it calls up a cultural proposition that killing human beings, ending their lives, is allowed within the specific rules governing the current situation. 'We are at war' (see Hollande recently) is a ritual claim that places people in different categories and roles-- 'aggressors', 'just wars', 'combatants', 'non-combatants',  'collateral damage', 'innocent victims', 'esprit de corps', 'honour', 'war hero', 'service' etc. etc. Ritualisation of the categories corresponds to the ability to pursue the tactics of war-- no wars without 'rallies', 'crowds', 'banners', 'kit', 'displays', 'inspections', 'drill',  'propaganda' and all kinds of totems of collective loyalty. Remember Levi-Strauss' discussion of the 'Rainbow Division' that anthropologist Ralph Linton joined in 1918 in France whose soldiers when asked would say "I am a Rainbow'. 

Considering this makes me think how little of Twentieth Century socialism (as it actually existed) would have been possible without Twentieth Century militarism. War is 'commandist' because it cannot persist for any length of time without a command structure and commandism persists while the military style of organisation and ethos persists. When I was young, American visitors used to say of Britain 'this is a socialist country'. What they meant was that large parts of society were run by state bureaucracies and by soberly dressed public servants, where in the US there would be corporations and organization men. The whole set of 'command economy' institutions and ethos lasted about as long as the working lives (and institutional memory) of the people who lived through the war.

Commandism has the potential to bring with it some contingently desirable social goods -- a degree of social equalitarianism, community spirit and an elevated sense of the common good, upward mobility (through the ranks), resource rationing and sharing, some equalisation of health and welfare resources, hence potentially improved health and education for citizens. On the other side, since commandism works by the rigid application of categories, people themselves become categories or types -- 'a uniform', a 'unit' -- only in small pockets may they express themselves or act divergently -- 'special operations', 'camouflage', 'war artist' etc. Inevitably some people become internal enemies; 'black marketeers', 'enemies of the people', 'pacifists', 'rootless cosmopolitans', 'subversives', 'quislings'-- these people are tabooed and open to varying kinds of social e-limin-ation up to summary execution. 

How much is any of this compatible with 'democracy'? Commandism increases participation for sure -- everyone lives in the shadow of the war injunction and must occupy the categories imposed by the war regime or risk being tabooed. But what about the other aspect of democracy-- that it might allow human beings to express themselves not as categories for and in a system, but for themselves out of their own individuality, in other words they might be allowed some of the 'freedom' that Lee talked about?

This brings me to the criticism of the book that I mentioned. What struck me as absent was any depth of access to the people concerned-- to those enlisted in the 'struggles'. What did they think about these situations from their point of view? The chapters provide excellent surveys of the structural potentials of these conflicts, but rather little on the lives of those participating -- what they hoped for, how they narrated their situation. I think here, for example, of Pedro Martinez' narration to Oscar Lewis of his experience as a Zapatista.

If I may, (and many thanks to the editors, OAC, and Prof. Hart for bringing the discussion to the table), it seems the discussion so far has been pre-occupied with concerns of war and violence. With respect to that issue, I must briefly say that I cannot condemn my grandparents and their generation for fighting against Japanese colonialism and re-claiming Korea's independence. In both South and North Korea, "commandism" resulted. However, I wonder if the focus on violence is not deterring from some of the other issues raised in the text.  

Returning to the questions and issues raised by the good professors Feuchtwang, Graeber and Hart: the issue of sustaining relevance and remaining/continuing to be accountable and responsive to base, the people, is one that, if I understand history correctly, would have benefitted many countries. I think Prof. Graeber is right to point out the issues and concerns of political organisation (even if some put it off until later) and Prof. Hart's comment on the international entanglement of governments is critical; U.S. and European intervention cannot be bracketed out of the discussion - their influence is too great. Another way of navigating the issue of accountability and responsiveness is the concern with the risk of oppressive social, economic (a, oddly invisible, elephant in the room), and political structures reconstituting themselves.

In a debate/discussion with Chomsky, Foucault (1971) argued that the "real political task" is "to criticize the working of institutions, that appear to be neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that political violence has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them." If they are not addressed, he states, there is a risk that those structures (of political violence) will "re-constitute themselves." He calls out the university (educational systems), the police, the army, and to that list we can add hospitals, banks, legal systems, housing, insurance, immigration, climate and emissions, etc. During Korea's Rhee administration (president from 1948-1960), not only were signifcant proportions of the police pro-Japanese but many government officials served under the Japanese colonial government. This propagated the same "culture of power" and oppressive structures under a anti-communist banner that would rig elections, hoard money, encourage corruption, and go on to kill thousands of citizens (with the blessing and support of the US). Despite, South Korea's tremendous and undeniable economic progress the struggle for democracy and accountability is, arguably, still happening today (the protest set to occur on Dec. 5 in Seoul, 'popular indignation rally', has been declared illegal).

Given the breadth and depth of organisational structures, 'societies', and 'cultures' that anthropologists have been engaged with in the field, is there not a wealth of wisdom and knowledge we can draw on to think about alternative structures of political and social organisation such that oppressive structures do not re-constitute themselves?

It would seem that, in parallel with the three themes identified, there are, at least, three tasks/areas of thought to consider: (1) the movement on the ground, (2) the critique of political as well as "neutral and independent" institutions, and (3) drawing on the wealth of anthropological data in considering alternative forms of political and economic organisation.

Thank you so much to all of those who have been responding to our book with such generosity. It is wonderful to have your thoughts and comments, and to know that our modest contribution is being appreciated and stirring thought. As one of the editors, I think it might be helpful to clarify a few misconceptions about the book by way of providing a bit of background to it and by encouraging some of those who have commented on the book and who have not yet managed to read the essays, to do so.


Though I agree that it is easy to feel, as Lee Drummond has, that any book put together on such issues by anthropologists is just an academic exercise, I can assure that this was not the case for anyone that was involved in this book. Its initial idea emerged from the very real issues and concerns which confronted the Indian Maoists in the forests and hills of the east of the country where I have done longterm ethnographic fieldresearch. To an older generation of commentators, as John McCreery points out, it may seem like the issue of armed struggle is something only they are familiar with since their days are bypassed, what the chapters of our book show is how movements of armed struggle have had an intimate impact on the lives of many of us ‘younger’ generations as they have emerged in one form or another in our field-sites and as their wider concerns have increasingly become our own.


Although I myself did not contribute a chapter (I have written about a number of the issues discussed in this book in other places), what we tried to do in this book is bring together those people who had first hand long-term experiences of armed revolutionary movements either as critical but committed activists or as sympathetic but critical observers. Although there are two anthropologists in the mix (Anne De Sales and Bridget O’Laughlin), several of our contributors are not institutionalised academics, let alone LSE ones. What is quite remarkable about our contributors is the deep insights they provide into each of the movements concerned from a grassroots perspective, their critical engagement with those movements, and the lessons that they draw which are – in many of the cases – crucially important for some of the movements even at this very moment in time.


The discussion on the open anthropology cooperative forum has focused a great deal on violence and party democracy and its consequences. There have been some very useful and, as Keith Hart says, 'elegant' interventions on the matter. So what I’d like to do here is draw attention to some of the other important aspects that our contributors have commented on that might also be good to discuss. One of the key issues adressed in several of the chapters is the significance of the analysis of the economy on the strategies of struggle. We have both macro and micro concerns addressed in the chapters here. For instance, Bernard De Mello shows us the inadequacy of the Indian Maoists characterisation of its economy as semi-feudal and semi-colonial while Bridget O’ Laughlin has provided us with an important account of why female unproductive labour was key to the failure of Frelimo’s agrarian projects and Anne De Sales explores the crucial tension between class and ethnicity that the Nepali Maoists have faced. Put together they raise important questions of what should be the strategies of revolutionary struggles today that both take into account the greater financialisation of our world (while most people are still involved in productive labour) and the role of women as well as men, as well as the place of ethnicity in relation to class.


Our book does not claim to answer such questions but by providing an indepth analysis of the movements explored here – FARC, Indian/Nepali and Philippino Maoists, Frelimo and Sandinistas – the hope is that it draws attention to some of the issues that are crucial to the contemporary struggles and to which we anthropologists do have something to contribute. I have often thought that if Mao once said that ‘a guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea,’ one might argue that an anthropologist must learn to both swim in the water and become part of the community of fish. We are well equipped to both understand and analyse the revolutionary activists as well as the people they are mobilising in different contexts, the interaction and social relations between both. Incidentally, Lee Drummond may be interested to know that the Indian Maoist Spokesperson brutally killed by the Indian State in 2010, was called by the nom de guerre ‘Azad’, which in Hindi means liberation, freedom or emancipation. 

Could it be useful, I wonder, to separate two threads related to the book. What the book sets out to do and how well it does it is one issue. How the book is received is another. Let me begin with the latter.

I fully accept what Feuchtwang and Shah have said about my initial ethnographic observation that a core group of those commenting here belong to a generation for whom discussion of armed resistance to oppression spoke to their own pressing concerns. Yes, there are younger anthropologists for whom these concerns are urgently alive. The book's existence demonstrates this fact. But how are we to interpret it?

Shah provides a useful clue. The book's initial idea grew out of his own research with Indian Maoists operating in northeast India. Fair enough. But why should we believe that most younger readers of OAC (already a self-selected group) will be interested in India, northeast India in partcular, or in Mao or Maoist thinking? In a world where anthropology is fragmented by topic and geographical interests and has abandoned its traditional comparative perspective and claims to provide an account of local practice that takes into account similarities as well as differences with other parts of the world, why should, for example, a reader whose interests are focused on pop culture in East Asia be expected to be interested in the questions raised here? Revised, my observation about the generation represented here by McCreery, Hart, Feuchtwang and Drummond, notes that in our generation, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear destruction, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the events of 1968 (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) provided a widely shared focus on violent versus non-violent resistance that is now shared only by a handful of younger colleagues who work in such places as northeast India.

These leads me, however, to the first of my questions; how well does the book achieve its stated objectives? So far, I have read the introduction and the first two chapters. I find myself wondering about what seems to me an elephant in the room. If our concern is what anthropology can bring to this discussion, why is it, I wonder, that we see so little mention (none in the conclusions) of differences between Indian and Chinese culture that have long been part of the anthropological canon? Caste in India, and its absence in China?

Mao's success in China cannot be solely attributed to Maoist versions of Marxist-Leninist social analysis, political and military acumen, and material conditions specific to China. In China, hierarchy has long been seen as the transient result of continuing, fluid change — and not as a permanent, essential feature of how society works. There is, in Chinese culture, a fundamental egalitarianism captured in the maxim "Within the four seas, all men are brothers." The rise and fall of China's imperial dynasties provided models of both success and failure in armed response to corruption and oppression as dynasties fell apart. What, then, of India?

If in India caste has the importance ascribed to it by anthropologists from many different schools, from Louis Dumont's synthesizing metaphysics to accounts of factionalism in local politics, the would-be revolutionary in India confronts a fundamental barrier to acceptance of Maoist analysis not present in China. I am not saying that this is "The Explanation" for why the revolution succeeded in China but has been confined to peripheral backwaters in India. Surely, however, it is something that any anthropologist should at least be considering in efforts to explain the success or failure of armed movements in India. Its absence in this book strikes me as a serious gap in the arguments it presents.
P.S. I have just now finished a first read of Anne de Sales "Identity Politics and the People's War in Nepal." In contrast to the material criticized in my previous message, this chapter strikes me as an exemplary instance of anthropologically informed political analysis.


    In our brief entries here, Keith and I both refer to Camus’ thought.  I’m not much of a scholar (I spend too much time watching movies and TV), but as far as I know we’re the only anthropologists to make use of the work of that brilliant thinker.  That lack, I fear, causes us to ignore his potential contribution to this discussion, principally, framing the issue before us in profoundly emotional and, yes, spiritual terms. 

    With that in mind, I need to ask if we can translate “emancipatory politics” (a term that gives me a lot of trouble) as “revolutionary struggle,” and if not, why not?  To yearn to be emancipated, to be set free, means something other, something more than members of a nominally “democratic” society voting  in the next election.  That results, as I imagine we’re all much too aware, merely in substituting one charlatan for another. 

    Given that translation, I think we should turn to Ryan’s and Huon’s emphasis on accounts of individuals confronting real-life situations that threaten them and their families.  Ryan, living in the storybook land of southern California, wakes up one morning to discover that the Sons of Anarchy (Google it) have moved in down the road.  Finding his life of (very) relative freedom in jeopardy, how do he and his neighbors deal with this scary situation?  How do they struggle to regain or renew their previous lives?  Huon cites Oscar Lewis’ Pedro Martinez, who wrestled with the conflict between his dedication to Zapata’s movement and his love and responsibility for family. 

    After all the rallies, all the slicing and dicing of where “participatory democracy” shades into “commandism,” aren’t we faced with a bedrock reality of how each of us, as individual human beings and not as members of this or that movement or group, confronts the prospect of revolutionary struggle – and with that the ultimate question:  When, if ever, is it right to kill?     

    This is precisely the issue Camus engages.  I’ve mentioned The Rebel; Keith has discussed the theme of The Plague, but the most relevant of Camus’ work here is Les Justes (The Just).  It’s a play, based on actual events, about a few Russian revolutionaries and their 1905 assassination plot against Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, uncle of Tsar Nicholas II.  The protagonist, Ivan “Yanek” Kaliayev, is chosen to throw the bomb.  Yanek is known as “the Poet,” and assumes the role of revolutionary as a spiritual quest for justice.  Unlike his antagonist Stepan, he is not a doctrinaire party loyalist, for whom the cause is abstract and unquestionable.  Stepan and Yanek get into it after the first failed attempt on the Grand Duke; Yanek has not bombed the carriage because two children, the Grand Duke’s niece and nephew, were aboard.  In the exchange below Annekov is the leader of the little band and Dora is one of them. 


Annenkov:  Stepan, everyone here loves you and respects you. But no matter what your reasons are, I cannot let you say that everything is allowed. Hundreds of our brothers have died so that we know that not everything is allowed.

Stepan:  Nothing is prohibited which could help our cause.

Annenkov, angrily: Is it all right to join the police and play on both sides, like Evno suggested? Would you do that?

Stepan: Yes, if we needed to.

Annenkov, getting up: Stepan, we will forget what you just said, in consideration of all you have done for us and with us. Just remember this. He [Yanek] wants to know if, in a few hours, we will be throwing bombs at those two children.

Stepan:  Children! That's all you can say. Don't you understand anything? Because Yanek did not kill those two, millions of Russian children will die of starvation in the next few years. Have you ever seen children starve to death? I have, and dying by a bomb is a breeze next to that death. But Yanek didn't see them. He only saw the two intelligent dogs of the Grand Duke. Aren't you human? Do you only live right now in the present? Then choose kindness and fix today's evil, instead of the revolution that will cure all evils, present and yet to come.

Dora:  Yanek accepts killing the Grand Duke, because his death can bring the time when Russian children won't die of starvation anymore. That by itself is not easy. But the death of the niece and nephew of the Grand Duke will not prevent one child from dying. Even in destruction, there is order, and there are limits.

Stepan, violently:  There are no limits. The truth is that you all don't believe in the revolution. (Everyone rises quickly, except Yanek.) You don't believe in it. If you believed in it totally, if you were sure that by our sacrifices and our victories we will build a Russia free from tyranny, a land of freedom which will eventually cover the whole world, and if you don't doubt that then man, free from his masters and his prejudices, will bring himself up towards the sky to face the real gods, what would the death of two children matter against that? You remember everything, all those rights, you hear me. And if this death stops you, it's because you are not completely sure that you're right. You don't believe in the revolution. (Silence. Kaliayev gets up.)

Kaliayev:  Stepan, I am ashamed of myself. However, I can't let you go on. I accepted killing someone to destroy this dictatorship. But after what you've said, I see a new tyranny coming, which, if it was ever installed, would make me into an assassin when I am trying to be a maker of justice.

Stepan:  What would it matter if you were not a "maker of justice," if justice was done, even by assassins? You and I are nothing.

Kaliayev:  We are something and you know it well, because it's in the name of your pride that you were speaking earlier today.

Stepan:  My pride only looks at me. But the pride of men, their revolution, the injustice under which they live, that is the business of all of us.

Kaliayev:  Men do not live by justice alone.

Stepan: When someone steals their bread, what else will they live on but justice?

Kaliayev: On justice and innocence.

Stepan: Innocence? Yeah, maybe I know what that is. But I chose to ignore it, and have it be ignored by millions of men, so that one day it can take on a bigger meaning.

Kaliayev:  You have to be very sure that day will come to destroy everything that makes a man willing to keep on living.

Stepan: I am sure of it.

Kaliayev: You can't be. To know who, me or you, is right, you'd need the sacrifice of maybe three generations and a lot of wars, terrible revolutions. When that rain of blood is dry on the earth, you and I would have been mixed with the dust for a long time.

Stepan: Others would come then, and I salute them as my brothers.

 Kaliayev, crying out:  Others ... yes! But I love those who live today, on the same earth as I do, and they're the ones I salute; I'm fighting for them and for them I'm willing to die. And for some far-off future city that I'm not sure of, I will not slap the faces of my brothers. I will not add to living injustices for a dead justice. (Softer, but firmly.) Brothers, I want to speak frankly and at least tell you what the simplest of peasants could say: to kill children is without honor. And if someday in my life, the revolution separates itself from honor, I will turn away from it. If you decide that, I will go to the exit of the theater, but I will throw myself under the horses.

. . .  


    Kaliayev succeeds on his second attempt.  He is captured, imprisoned, and hanged. 

    As we contemplate a blood-soaked world with its revolutionary movements and state violence, I suggest that every act of political / ideological murder be weighed against Kaliayev’s standard.  Everything else is loathsome. 


[Incidentally, Les Justes is wrongly translated as “The Just Assassins.”  Note that Kaliayev (above) explicitly rejects the label of “assassin.”  He describes himself as a “maker of justice” (justicier) ]    

After all the rallies, all the slicing and dicing of where “participatory democracy” shades into “commandism,” aren’t we faced with a bedrock reality of how each of us, as individual human beings and not as members of this or that movement or group, confronts the prospect of revolutionary struggle – and with that the ultimate question: When, if ever, is it right to kill?

Yes. And personally I agree with Lee's suggestion that "every act of political/ideological murder be weighed against Kaliayev's standard. Everuthing else is loathsome."

That said, this argument's only anthropological merit is the reminder that murder and/or legitimate killing of the type exemplified by the drill sargeant who says, "Your job is not to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his" comes down to an individual's choice.

What is lacking is any consideration of where the boundary between murder and legitimate killing is drawn, a classic anthropological question, whose answers vary from place to place and from one historical/ethnographic moment to another. On reflection, the "innocence" ascribed to the Czar's children is a socially constructed cultural classification, denied by participants in classic vendettas between feuding families, headhunters, and European theorists of total war whose ideas developed in the wake of Napoleon's use of conscript armies. The murder of possible heirs who might become the focus of resistance is common throughout human history. The killing of the Czar, his wife and his daughters following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia during the 1917 revolution is only one relatively recent and familiar example. That we are now appalled by such things and wish to draw a clear distinction between the innocent and the guilty and provide special protection to children is, in contrast, relatively novel and culturally specific.

An anthropology that pretends to comprehend the whole of human experience cannot reduce itself to parochial moral judgments. An anthropology that enriches our understanding of why some examples of armed resistance to established authorities succeed while most fail cannot explain the difference by pointing to a universal dilemma. It must offer an account of the full range of human responses to that dilemma and, so far as possible, explain thoir differences.

Erratum: I would, on reflection, change, "legitimate killing of the type exemplified by the drill sargeant who says, 'Your job is not to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his' comes down to an individual's choice."
"legitimate killing of the type exemplified by the drill sargeant who says, 'Your job is not to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his' comes down to acts committed by individuals."

To kill or not to kill is an individual choice, but the criteria that guide those choices are not independent creations. They are where culture comes in, and anthropologists have something to say.



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