Some Afterthoughts

“Without this restlessness, there is no progress”

Aleksandra Kollontai, 1928

Friday, 3 June 2022, was the date of a remarkable event. On the occasion of her retirement, Veronica Vasterling had set up a meeting during which, in a first-round, younger staff members of our faculty gave a total of six presentations. They addressed, among others, the persistent phenomena of sexism, racism, elitism and classism, as well as paying attention to eurocentrism, both of the canon and the curriculum, and to the recent deplorable, but also highly instructive episode around topics of ‘social safety’. Next, there was space for questions and discussion, also with and by the ‘older’ staff members who, initially, had formed a silent audience. It was, to my mind, a very good idea to let younger faculty speak first, if only because this really forced older persons such as myself to listen. In this sense alone, we all owe Veronica a big thank you!

During the meeting, I kept silent, not so much because I had nothing to say, but rather because I did not feel entitled. That said, it should also be noted that I had too many things to think about first. The recent ‘chapter’ in the history of social unsafety has shocked and disturbed me as it has many others, also since, with a history (with interruptions) of some forty-five years at this faculty, I have ample experience with a wide variety of inappropriate and – in a number of cases – unacceptable behavior by staff members. That the long list of cases, the by now infamous twenty-nine, covers several decades, is strongly varied and includes cases of subtle or not-so-subtle bullying, inappropriate remarks concerning somebody’s looks, and of exclusion from discussions. All serious, but not equally so. Besides, there is no ground to believe that other faculties, at Radboud or elsewhere, have been faring much better or worse than this one – which can be regarded both as good or as bad news. In either case, there is still, to use the Dutch saying, “werk aan de winkel”.

It is important to address and remedy, harder than has been done so far, recognizable forms of unsafety without jumping to the romantic illusion of an environment in which ‘everybody can feel safe’. There is, due to our finitude, vulnerability and fragility as humans, a bottom-line unsafety that is simply an ineradicable part of the human condition, a fact that we better look in the eye than try to ignore. As Judith Shklar put it: “To be alive is to be afraid, […],” adding, however, that

[T]he fear we fear is of pain inflicted by others to kill and maim us, not the natural and healthy fear that merely warns us of avoidable pain. And, when we think politically, we are afraid not only for ourselves, but for our fellow citizens as well.1

The question is whether we can easily distinguish between avoidable and unavoidable fear or, in this case, the unsafety causing it. Uncertainty, insecurity and precarity are not unpleasant side-effects but rather core elements of a late-capitalist society with its neoliberal hegemonic ideology: the logic of opportunities and risks, the split between winners and losers, the dynamics of atomization and responsibilization, the benchmark of win-win (as it were the invisible hand made mensurable), etc. Surely, such a society is contingent, hence avoidable, and it can and should be replaced by a different one. Still, it is important to distinguish between the systemic inequality and unsafety that stem from the present socio-economic and political system at large and the avoidable and reproachable forms of inappropriate behavior within that system that are not only unacceptable in their own right, but also hamper longer-term objectives: fearful people are not prone to think or act politically.

This is why we learn most from those who did and do think and act in spite of fear. This applies to philosophy generally and to political philosophy in particular. It is far from accidental that, in Western political philosophy, people of Jewish background play such a key role. Suffice it to mention the names of Hannah Arendt, Michael Walzer, Simone Weil, Semyon Frank, Ayn Rand, Isaiah Berlin, Judith Shklar, and Claude Lefort, all of whom were either direct targets of persecution, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism, or descendants of such targets. Walzer wrote, in the Preface to On Toleration, “As an American Jew, I grew up thinking of myself as an object of toleration. It was only much later that I recognized myself as a subject too, an agent called upon to tolerate others, […]”. 2 Personally, I am convinced that Walzer’s situatedness as someone who had reason to be fearful of not being tolerated (if you doubt this, read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America), or had a family history of not being tolerated, greatly helped him in “thinking politically” (the apt title of a collection of essays by the same Walzer). It is only the privileged who can afford to think apolitically.

For me personally, i.e. as a white, male, highly-educated, Caucasian (the euphemism for ‘Aryan’ that is now spreading in Dutch society), heterosexual, European, non-handicapped person with full citizenship and a non-suspect family name, who thus happens to be on the ‘safe’ side of all lines of inequality that divide present-day society, this implies philosophical modesty, including the acknowledgement that this indeed happens to be the case. Being ‘part of the problem’ objectively can, if understood and appropriated, subjectively become part of the solution, as some famous earlier philosophers understood:

Just as […] at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole. [Wie daher früher ein Teil des Adels zur Bourgeoisie überging, so geht jetzt ein Teil der Bourgeoisie zum Proletariat über, und namentlich ein Teil der Bourgeoisideologen, welche zum theoretischen Verständnis der ganzen geschichtlichen Bewegung sich hinaufgearbeitet haben. 3, Dietz Verlag, MEW 4), 471-2; idem, The Portable Karl Marx [ed. Eugene Kamenka], 215.]

Far from comparing myself with those classics, the same logic is at play in what is happening right now. There are, however, two differences: the statement applies to any kind of struggle, not only class struggle, and also it remains true if we drop the idea of ‘a whole historical movement’: the point is that class, race, gender etc. equality are conceptually inevitable, irrespective of how history develops. This does not exclude the possibility of major setbacks, which are now taking place in many parts of the world, nor does it exclude the permanence of struggle and discussion: complacency and self-righteousness are among the cardinal political sins.

It is, therefore, not hard to see how political philosophy as a discipline can only progress if it aligns itself with those who, as it was said of Enrique Dussel, (dare to) think “from the underside of history”,4 aware of the truth expressed by Reinhart Koselleck: “Even if history is made – in the short term – by the victorious, cognitive historical gains come – in the long term – from the defeated [Mag die Geschichte – kurzfristig – von den Siegern gemacht werden, die historischen Erkenntnisgewinne stammen – langfristig – von den Besiegten].”5 To which one should add that the defeated are rarely defeated forever, which is both bad and good news. Once one adopts this perspective, thinking along politically from the underside of society, from the subaltern, from the bonded rather than the lords, from the part of no part, one can discover such gems as Gayatri Spivak’s analysis of Hegel’s “benevolent” yet deeply paternalistic attempt to give the Indian “mind / spirit [Geist]” its place in world history,6 or one can start to understand why Achille Mbembe’s recent work on necropolitics and politics of enmity is so instructive, in part, because he is writing “from Africa”.7 The field I feel most confident in myself, political philosophy in Russia, is interesting in this regard precisely because it is torn by the contrast between a strong sense of inferiority to and submission by a culturally colonizing West while, at the same, militantly claiming its own emancipatory, even missionary potential and, simultaneously, not being able to deal with its own colonizing past. How torn can you be…8

One way or another, there is every reason to address, again and again, the aforementioned phenomena – sexism, racism, et cetera – because they concern us all. As Anya Topolski aptly put it, we want to have a safe faculty in order to have brave ‘classrooms’, where a wide variety of points of view can be discussed and critically scrutinized, which is what philosophy is all about. Address them again: one thing that struck me during that particular Friday afternoon was that much of it was highly reminiscent of, at times verbatim identical to discussions and struggles that I have been witness and participant of in the past when I was a student at this same faculty. There are differences, too, one of them being that, at the time, the philosophy faculty of the then Catholic University of Nijmegen was one of the places of radical, critical discussion in the midst of a society that seemed, to us at least, lagging way behind, whereas now these discussions are all over the place in many societies and the racist, supremacist, sexist etc. positions are in the defensive corner of the arena — hurt though not defeated.

The period I am referring to is the late 1970s and early 1980s, when this faculty housed, as it does today, many politically aware students and several ‘supportive’ members of staff. However, during that period, the university was organized in a much more democratic way than it is now, and time schedules were less tight, which created a space for both politics and philosophy now hard to imagine. This equally affected curriculum and staff, and it also concerned topics like feminist and non-Western philosophical thought. To give two examples: one of the lecturers at the time, Ton Lemaire, included non-Western thinkers in his courses, for example, Frantz Fanon. This occasioned us, as students, to start an extra-curricular reading group that, apart from Fanon, focused on Che Guevara, Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich and Mao Zedong.9 Indeed, as the reader will not fail to notice, they were all men, as were the members of the reading group. Luckily, however, the relentless effort of a group of female students, who found support among students and staff, led to the appointment of a lecturer in – as it was called at the time – “women’s studies in philosophy”, Rina van der Haegen, whose brilliant course introduced us to the confronting and eye-opening work of Luce Irigaray and others. Unfortunately, her teaching did not become part of the mandatory curriculum – its status remained similar to present-day courses in intercultural philosophy. Even more, unfortunately, Van der Haegen’s untimely death meant the end of her presence at our faculty.

This brief memoir is not to suggest a déjà vu, nor is it about nostalgia. Quite the opposite: I am among those who welcome the revival of these debates and also among those who have tried to do something with them in their work as academic philosophers. In fact, if I look back, those two topics, non-Western philosophy and feminist philosophy, have remained on the retina of several members of staff, including myself. Including other philosophers in one’s teaching than the stereotypical ‘canonical’ dead white European / Western men has become a matter of course. In my case, this includes thinkers like, obviously, Hannah Arendt, but also Nancy Fraser, Kwame Gyekye, Chantal Mouffe, Cornel West, Aleksandra Kollontai, Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Wendy Brown. With living authors, this is relatively easy, but when it comes to earlier periods, it can be more difficult: standard resources like Marit Rullmann’s two-volume Philosophinnen or Ursula I. Meyer’s four-volume Die Welt der Philosophin have not been translated into either English or Dutch, and the excellent Dutch overview by, among others, Veronica Vasterling, contains mostly fragments.10 Other than Western philosophical traditions are often transmitted orally rather than in written form, and translations are not always reliable, which also limits access.

Surely, it is always possible, and also desirable, to do more in these fields. Moreover, these changes only take place as a result of permanent ‘peer pressure’ and they come with a dose of excess — it’s too easy to slip back into comfortable old-European habits. At the same time, one also has to feel competent: my own field of non-Western philosophy, i.e., Russian philosophy, constantly reminds me of the non-self-evident nature of such competence, and one should avoid, to my mind, benevolent amateurism. It may, therefore, take a while before we get completely rid of the situation in which non-European or non-male philosophers ‘also’ get some attention, as if they were some kind of ‘extra’ (Annabelle Dufourcq’s point) or appendix.

This takes me to a positive note. Despite the striking similarities between the discussions of the 1970s and those of the present day, a lot has changed, not only in curricula but also in the composition of faculties. It will be a matter of time until we can no longer imagine philosophy without the names of, say, Judith Butler and Donna Haraway. For many among us, this already is the case. Besides, less than ten years ago, the department where I work consisted of six staff members whose main difference from the canonical white European male philosophers was that we were still alive. Now, the department has a female head, a fair gender balance, and has become more diverse in many respects. This cannot fail to have effects on the curriculum and on the ways in which people relate to each other and to students. A completely ‘socially safe’ environment is surely an illusion, but increasing diversity implies distribution of unsafety itself and a situation in which nobody can feel immune is anyway preferable. This may also contribute to putting an end to sexism, racism, and other -isms, both at the faculty and, through students in particular, in society more broadly. Finally, the meeting set up by Veronica was attended by an audience that, forty years ago, would have simply been unthinkable. It was said, at one point, that full professors should do more about these matters — I counted nine of them in total, one-third of the silent audience. I also counted, among the audience, both the current, the previous and one past dean of our faculty. Again, this cannot remain without effect — not least of all because the audience did remain silent so that the younger generation was listened to and heard.

Yet, to end on a negative note, there is one thing which disturbs me, and that made me think of the well-known debate between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth about recognition vs redistribution (in which I side with Fraser).11 During his intervention, Simon Gusman addressed the issue of classism, which is certainly an important topic at a university with so many first-generation students and also a recognizable topic for someone who, like myself, comes from a lower middle-class background (with peasant ancestors), and who, moreover, could not fall back on a shared Catholic identity. However, the problem is not classism itself but socio-economic inequality covered up by classism. What disturbs me, therefore, is not the attention paid to class, sex, gender, race, et cetera, but the emphasis on -isms, which, in my understanding, are the variegated forms of legitimization of much more material differences. Sexism is not just a matter of bad male attitudes; it is also about socio-economic conditions, glass ceilings, care facilities, unequal pay, etc. Racism is not simply a matter of some people thinking they are superior to other people; it is also about rights, housing, jobs, and resources. Such -isms are often already of a defensive character, those positions have already lost all credibility, and the Jordanites (reference is to Jordan Peterson) of this world already know they are fighting a lost battle. There is no good reason to just mimic their emphasis on recognition and constructed identities. In fact, I think there is every reason not to mimic it, to partly shift the focus and to acknowledge that politics of recognition and identity is a diversion if it forgets about redistribution. There is no battle without losses, just as there is no change without excess. Undoing real-life injustice requires power and politics, not just talk or noble idea(l)s.

Therefore, I fully agree with Annabelle Dufourcq that an ‘ideal’ faculty would be everything but ideal, implying that a claim to be an ideal faculty that has fixed all major issues would be a case of ideology. I think this also is so because a faculty is not an isolated entity but part of a much wider socio-economic and political, and even ecological, reality that it reflects and that it can have an impact on by addressing it critically. I am not suggesting a neo-Marxist economism here: Marxism has been rightly accused of a tendency to reduce all struggle to class struggle. Yet, present-day philosophy may have swayed too far in the opposite direction. As Rahel Jaeggi, after quoting Max Horkheimer, recently put it:

My sense is we haven’t yet arrived at a conception that would be wide enough, and part of the tendency to abandon the topic of capitalism comes from this “fear of economism” that we’ve been internalizing since the early days of the Frankfurt School.12

Our starting point has to be the question not if, but how an exclusive focus on inclusion, identity, and recognition, as well as an emphasis on the plethora of -isms, is part of the reproduction of the existing order of things. Indeed, to end with a phrase by Veronica, a faculty is not about coziness. It is about struggle, and a faculty is one out of many arenas. Ideally, a faculty does foster friendly relations, yet friendship is never about friendship itself but about something ‘out there’ in a torn and twisted world that, to vary Peter Berger, is “as ferociously political as it ever was”.

  1. Judith N. Shklar, ‘The Liberalism of Fear,’ in: Political Thought and Political Thinkers (University of Chicago Press: 1998), 11.
  2. Michael Walzer, On Toleration (New Haven & London: Yale UP: 1997), xi.
  3. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (Berlin [DDR
  4. Linda Martín Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Thinking from the Underside of History (Lanham &c: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).
  5. Reinhart Koselleck, Zeitschichten; Studien zur Historik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2000), 68.
  6. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge & London: Harvard UP, 1999), 37-45.
  7. Achille Mbembe, Politiques de l’inimitié (Paris: La Découverte, 2018) and Necropolitics (Duke UP, 2019). In Dutch : Een politiek van vijandschap (Amsterdam: Boom, 2017).
  8. See my Russian Political Philosophy; Anarchy, Authority, Autocracy (Edinburgh UP, 2022).
  9. The basis for that activity was an edited volume by Hans Achterhuis, Filosofen van de derde wereld (Baarn: Ambo, 1975).
  10. Marit Rullmann (Hrsg.), Philosophinnen; 2 Bände (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1998); Ursula I. Meyer, Die Welt der Philosophin; 4 Bände (Aachen: ein-FACH-verlag, 1995-1998); Carolien Ceton (hoofdred.), Ineke van der Burg, Annemie Halsema, Karen Vintges, Veronica Vasterling (red.), Vrouwelijke filosofen; een historisch overzicht (Amsterdam & Antwerpen, Atlas Contact, 2017).
  11. Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2003) / Redistribution or Recognition (London & New York: Verso, 2003).
  12. Nancy Fraser, Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism; A Conversation in Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 8.