‘Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity’ by Massimiliano Tomba reviewed by Brant Roberts


Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019. 286 pp., $34.95, hb
ISBN 9780190883089

Reviewed by Brant Roberts

About the reviewer

Brant Roberts is based in Houston, TX. His writings have appeared in Marx & Philosophy Review …

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When we look for new ideas and new forms of analysis, we often reach to the past for inspiration and potential building blocks for the future. Such an approach structures Massimiliano Tomba’s new book Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity. Simultaneously addressing Marxist political science and historiography, the book is rich in potential for rethinking what kind of future we would like to strive towards and deals with the lost moments in history that have often been overlooked by both historians and socialists alike.

Tomba interrogates particular moments within the French Revolution in 1793, the Paris Commune in 1871, the Russian Revolution in 1918 and the Zapatista uprising in 1994, all in order to build his argument around the concept of insurgent universality. These moments stand in opposition to what Tomba refers to as provincialized time which implies an arrow of history along which events occur and mark the passage from one economic mode of production to the next. His project is to use these moments to deprovincialize time as they exploit the tension between the state and civil society in order to build a future around commonly held property and to radically shift the notion of citizenship from the individual to social groups.

After laying out his project in chapter 1, Tomba begins chapter 2 with a comparative analysis of the declarations, decrees and constitutions between 1789 and 1795 during the French Revolution, and finishes by pointing to the difference between universalism and universality. The former is juridical and implies a nation-state that maintains itself through coercive power, has a private property regime and defines private individuals as having political rights; the latter universalizes property, ‘questions the political and social order, and individuals act as members of groups and assemblies – hence, as citizens beyond legal citizenship’ (67). The rest of Tomba’s book is built on this difference and he uses it in each chapter in order to justify insurgent universality, seeing it as the continued legacy of revolutionary tension that rises to the surface of each revolution that he cites.

In chapters 3 and 4, Tomba addresses the continued legacy of insurgent universality in the Paris Commune and in the Russian Revolution. He compares the communards with the Soviets as they both strived towards many of the same goals of going beyond the modern state form, representative democracy, private property relations and the monopoly of violence under the state. For Tomba, both the communards and Soviets go beyond the narrow bounds of national belonging and use the concept of association as the only form of citizenship. The aim of abolishing individual citizenship and private property points to a communist future that was missed but is inherent to insurgent universality which is characterized, in both chapters, by an imperative mandate whereby democratic excess becomes the standard bearer for how decisions are made and carried out. According to this model, the state no longer makes political decisions but simply facilitates them.

In chapter 5, Tomba uses the Zapatista revolt as the most explicit example of an alternative legacy of modernity. Centering the Zapatista declarations, manifestos, the Mexican constitution and the indigenous traditions, he forms an analysis of the revolt and the institutions that were built by the Zapatistas as a contemporary form of insurgent universality in practice. Citing the arrow of history from the pre-Columbian era through to the Zapatista revolt, he sees their uprising as exploiting the tension of their time. During an era in which the ‘end of history’ was being declared, the Zapatistas put forward a new history based on insurgent universality, collective government and communal property.

Towards the chapter’s conclusion, Tomba proceeds to differentiate between state property and commonly held property. ‘State ownership of land, water, and subsoil resources is an inheritance of colonialism, both within and outside of Europe’ (222). While he attempts to link commonly held property as essentially more democratic, he nevertheless misses the point that state monopoly of property was part of guiding economic planning for the development and modernization of many socialist countries that raised the standard of living for millions of people in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere. To consider state ownership of property as colonial reduces the lived realities of colonialism to simply exploitation by an entity outside of the community of producers and simplifies the complex relationship between workers and the state under the really-existing socialist states. It is not the only oversight of the chapter. In the context of the Zapatista Other Campaign in 1996, Tomba criticizes both the ‘orthodox Marxist Left’ and the ‘postmodern Left’ for not sympathizing with the campaign. He does not state, nor reference, any specific organizations or people that belong to either of these groups. To speak of a postmodern Left without specification rings of the vague and obscure criticisms made by far-right thinker Jordan Peterson than it does lucidly identify anyone on the contemporary left.

Overall, it is easy to sympathize with Tomba’s book. However, the implications of its 2019 publication are important to clarify. Given its emphasis on the Zapatistas and that there are no movements nor revolutions after the 1990s that are its focus, the primary content of the book could easily have been written in 1999 and, in light of the atmosphere of the broad left in the late 1990s around the work of autonomists and anarchists during the alt-globalization movement, the work likely would have been much more popular 20 years ago. It is a work that focuses on building political projects from below during a time in which the left in the US is more focused on building dual power between social movements and electing socialists to office. In short, insurgent universality is a theory that has missed its time. This is not to say that insurgent universality is an idea completely outdated – far from it. This book is an ambitious project and on its own merit is worth reading. However, it does not answer to contemporary questions about the challenges that we face today.

The questions, ‘where is insurgent universality today?’ and ‘who benefits from this book?’ are pressing. Within the US, socialist organizers that are working to build tenants unions, workers unions and local antifascist defense groups may see some potential in what Tomba has laid out, but in a very limited sense. It is either a book that has missed its time or a book written for a moment of future revolutionary tension, but not for addressing current debates.

That the Venezuelan Revolution is not dealt with at all is a serious oversight. There have been genuinely popular constitutional processes and the same problems of dual power in Venezuela since Hugo Chavez’s first election as the ones dealt with in Tomba’s book. We have seen the perseverance of the Venezuelan communes, communal councils and the work to build a deeply democratic state in the face of, externally, an economic blockade and, internally, the tension between communal and state power.

This omission may be related to Tomba’s rejection of left populism that runs sporadically throughout the book and its association with both Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. From the second page he makes it clear that, ‘[i]nsurgent universality is mainly anonymous, because when democracy is real, its practice does not need great personalities or leaders’ (2). He clarifies later in chapter 3: ‘One of the characteristics of insurgent universality is the lack of what Hegel called world-historical heroes who play pivotal roles in the progress of world history. It is the political insignificance, the people becoming little, that generates the mechanism of compensation that gives rise to the great personalities.’ (79). Arguably, under Gamal Nasser in Egypt, under Juan and Evita Peron in Argentina and under Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, there we find an opposite effect where people began to take significant steps forward in their political and social struggles. Rather than writing them off, a deprovincialized history should take these histories and their legacies seriously.

Why not other histories? Certainly many of the anticolonial revolutions of the past century dealt with these issues yet they are neither analyzed nor mentioned. While Tomba’s book could not be expected to take in every single revolution from the past 100 years of struggle, it is also incredibly limited for not even mentioning them. Despite paying some attention to the Haitian Revolution and the Algerian uprising against French colonization in 1871, the analysis applied is still informed by his points surrounding the ideas that grew out of the French Revolution and Paris Commune. One wonders whether or not stronger points could have been made by relegating the French Revolution and Paris Commune to the background, and, instead, centering the Haitian Revolution and Algerian uprising in its place.

How does insurgent universality defend itself without state guided-coercion or violence? That none of these moments survived is a key problem that Tomba does not address. Bonapartism succeeded the French Revolution; the Paris Commune was eventually crushed; the Russian Revolution survived but went against the Soviets by relapsing into a universalism of which Tomba disapproves and the Zapatista revolt was largely contained to Chiapas. The histories focused on follow a dialectical path that were succeeded by new political situations and fell back into the cracks of provincialized history. Yet, despite the title, universality is not used in terms of dialectics, nor in broad terms of ruptures that lead to new tensions between opposing political forces. Insurgent universality is written as anti-dialectal as it ‘has freed itself from this obsession with totality, unity, binary opposition and –isms’ (21).

Despite these criticisms, Insurgent Universality is deeply refreshing. In a time when liberalism has attempted to sink its decaying teeth into the legacy of class struggles; when Verso publishes a book on a flippant theory of ‘fully automated luxury communism’; when modern monetary theory becomes the economic standard for leading democratic socialists in the US – rather than abolishing the form of value and money altogether – Tomba’s book reintroduces a communist politics needed to rethink how we want to move forward in a time when it is more than necessary to rethink what needs to be done.

11 July 2019

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this. The book looks compelling. I have some comments.

    First, the Russian Revolution began in 1917, not 1918 (second paragraph).

    Second, about this: “state monopoly of property was part of guiding economic planning for the development and modernization of many socialist countries that raised the standard of living for millions of people in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere.” Of course both the USSR and the PRC (have) engaged in internal colonialism (Central Asia/Caucasus and Tibet/Xinjiang, respectively). So the reviewer’s comment seems to have missed those realities.

    “In the context of the Zapatista Other Campaign in 1996, Tomba criticizes both the ‘orthodox Marxist Left’ and the ‘postmodern Left’ for not sympathizing with the campaign. He does not state, nor reference, any specific organizations or people that belong to either of these groups.” This is very clear to me. Marxist groups, both in Mexico and abroad, dismissed the EZLN from the beginning.

    I also find it highly problematic to associate Chavez and especially Maduro with “the work to build a deeply democratic state.” I would refer the reviewer to the UNHRC’s report from last week detailing the murder of almost 7000 Venezuelans by State security forces in the past 2 years under the guise of “Operations for the Liberation of the People.”

    “Arguably, under Gamal Nasser in Egypt, under Juan and Evita Peron in Argentina and under Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico, there we find an opposite effect where people began to take significant steps forward in their political and social struggles.” Nasser and the Perones were fascists. I’m not sure what the point of this comment is.

  2. Javier, of course the Russian Revolution began in 1917 but I recommend that you look to the table of contents of the book where Tomba lists it at 1918. I never claimed the Russian Revolution began in 1918. The general historiography of the revolution has it lasting much longer than 1 year and the Soviet declarations that Tomba deals with are in 1918.

    As for your ahistorical comment on the USSR & PRC as colonial, I highly recommend you read more on the histories of Soviet Central Asia and Western China under the PRC. “Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR” by Adeeb Khalid and “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism” by Samir Amin, would make excellent starting points.

    Regarding the Zapatista comment, I’m not aware of any “orthodox” nor any “postmodern” Left during the 1990s nor today. There were Marxist critiques of the Other Campaign but what about them was orthodox. Generally, I find it useless to call any faction of Marxist thought “orthodox.”

    Regarding Chavez and Maduro, please read through how the Venezuelan constitution was established and the deeply democratic engagement between civil society and the state during that process. I like how you didn’t even acknowledge the communes nor the communal councils that I referenced which have been an incredibly rich grassroots democratic experience that Tomba avoids completely.

    Nasser and the Perones were not fascists. There is nothing fascist about the massive socioeconomic and political shifts that took place in those countries under both. The point of the comment is that Tomba dismisses important political gains made under these leaders as not having been democratic enough for him.

    I would challenge you to actually say that Nasser was a fascist to any Egyptians or Palestinians engaged in political work in the US or elsewhere. No book I could recommend would harshly critique that more than they could.

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