If every time we remembered Robespierre we thought of the guillotine, we would not have such a romantic relationship with the concept of revolution. This idea, somewhat hyperbolic, is Milan Kundera’s and we could apply it to colonialism. To its past and its current iterations. To its most lugubrious and its most frivolous present. Following in his wake, if every time we drank a mojito or smoked a cigar we thought of the plantation, the enjoyment would no longer be so innocent. That whiplash would invoke the infinite lashes of the slavery that produced these pleasures, making visible —just as Fernando Ortiz warned us— the framework that merchants “would have to wring and braid for centuries.” At that precise moment, the mutations of the plantation would become evident, updated today in the service economy of tourism and human displacements; the dislocation of migrant populations and the delocalization of global companies; the coltan mines that have made possible the cell phone we carry in our pockets and the holiday resorts; the Chinese gambling hangars and the clothing factories of the big brands; tours of pre-colonial ruins and trafficking in women; the clichés of the cultural industry or the geopolitical rethinking of centers and peripheries.
Thus, it would become clear that colonialism is not something distant in space or previous in time. That it is not a remote inevitability that is dumped exclusively on the Other. That it is a mechanism inherent to the ordering of the contemporary world and not a punctual or surmountable phase of it. Including here those academic plantations in which anticolonialism has been trapped —deconstructed?— by the decolonial rhetoric emanating from North American campuses. (Ivy League anti-colonialism it is also a thing.)
For all these reasons, in this 21st century of blink, tweets, screenshots or zapping, perhaps it is advisable to return to precursors of the caliber of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall and Aimè Césaire, Manuel Moreno Fraginals and Eric Williams, Edward Said or Edouard Glissant. Or to some true fictions by César Vallejo, Lydia Cabrera or José María Arguedas. Far from behaving as sacred cows, these old masters can help us to understand the contradictions of the anticolonial history; typical of a very unequal fight fought on the defensive or an almost always unresolved tension between ideologies, identities, and racial conflicts. They will also help us to unravel the reactivation of this cultural war that during the Cold War was fought as a contest for the future and now seems to persist as a battle for the past. With part of the right wing recovering McCarthyism to denounce communist infiltration in the anti-colonial movements and part of the left wing recovering Stalinism to repeat the old misgivings that, since Soviet times, served to demean anti-colonialism as a reformist deviation that would only serve to hinder the mission of the proletariat.
I do not know if it would occur to any member of that True Left today to accuse Che Guevara of being postmodern, as in his day several biographies commissioned from the Kremlin did of being an “adventurer.” But I can intuit, given his lethal propensity, that he would be risking his life. I can also imagine that he would not view decolonial theories favorably and that he would treat Walter Mignolo with even more inclemency than Regis Debray.
On the other hand, I am writing from Spain, and this is significant, as the growing arrogance that equates colonial pride with greatness is as alarming as it is ridiculous. By translating the conquest of America as a pious NGO embarked to the New World with the purpose of liberating its societies from cannibalism, evangelizing them and reaching an honorable pact with them in exchange for gold and silver.
Edward Said already warned us that projecting the past onto our current perspectives entails “the risk of going mad or going bankrupt.” It is absurd, he added, to use “the Amadís de Gaula to understand 16th century Spain (or today’s Spain)” or “to use the Bible to understand the House of Commons.” But this prudence in no case justifies reducing to convenience the atrocities of colonialism, its intrinsic policy of extermination or denying that the enslavement and forced transfer of millions of Africans had the magnitude of a holocaust.
It is ironic the contrast between that colonialist vanity and the surrender, very colonized by the way, to the apotheosis of a tourism under which, paraphrasing Henri Lefebvre, the country of consumption ends up becoming the consumption of the country. It is impossible to miss the contradiction between the vindication of the importance of Spain in the distant origin of globalization and the bewilderment with the secondary role that it now plays in what globalization has finally turned out to be. With its cities, real open-air museums of colonial plundering, spinning without a moment of peace around a service economy whose main cultural line can be none other than the production of stereotypes.
In the modest place afforded by this gigantic plantation the world has become, anti-colonialism would have to start at home: it should become an obligatory and unpostponable domestic agenda.
Originally published in El País, Babelia, October 23, 2021.