In-depth exploration by Susie Linfield in Fathom of the ideas of Albert Memmi, who died on 22 May 2020 aged 99. As someone whose experience as a Jew in an Arab country made him a Zionist, yet remaining true to his anti-colonialist principles, Memmi emerges as a model for the progressive Left today.
Much has been made of Memmi’s insistence on his multiple ethnic, or national, identities. He was simultaneously Jewish, Arab, and French: ‘I do not think I have ever failed this triple agenda.’ (His political identities were also multiple and, he insisted, not in contradiction: He was a Zionist, an anti-colonialist, a supporter of Third World revolutions, a secularist, a socialist, a nationalist, a universalist.) But these national identities were not just an easy form of multiculturalism, as might be imagined today. In fact, they weren’t easy at all, and they existed in a constant dialectic: ‘All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been … a constant revolt against my attachments.’ Like the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, who insisted that ‘every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances,’ Memmi understood that multiple identities are not a form of personal expression but an existential necessity. Singular identities, reductionist identities, truncated identities: all set us on the deadly road to fundamentalism. ‘It is possible to be Jewish, Tunisian, and French all at once,’ Memmi wrote. ‘In any case this type of thing is necessary if we wish to stop killing each other. If people finally accepted being this and that, and not this or that, admitting at the same time that others can be both this and that, and are not obligated to be only this or only that, so many tragedies would be prevented! This would mean that we had finally learned to live together.’ In his last book, Memmi insisted that, in a globalised world, living together was now a pragmatic imperative. ‘We must convince ourselves of our solidarity. In the world that is being constructed day by day, no one can go it alone. Solidarity is not only a philosophical and moral concept, it is a practical necessity.’
Memmi opposed all forms of abstraction and sentimentality (the former is, in fact, an expression of the latter). Though a humanist, he well understood that the concept could be a shield behind which the dominators could hide and, thereby, preserve their power. Racism and colonialism were structural – and therefore require structural abolition; Memmi criticised the ‘indignation of sentimental anti-racism, which achieves as little as it costs.’ (I write this as tens of thousands of anti-racism protestors fill my country’s streets.) The comforts of humanism could too easily create a sense of false unity, or an ersatz equality: ‘Humanism, yes, but humanism after the liberation and not this fake humanism, a one-way street where I must consider all men as saints in a humanity in which I still have no place.’
Memmi was suspicious of the siren song of ‘universalist messianism’ – the temptation ‘to deny to the utmost all singularities, all those accursed differences which stand in the way of communion between men’ – which he saw as particularly alluring for Jewish intellectuals. ‘Universal man and universal culture are after all made up of particular men and particular cultures.’
At the same time, although he firmly believed in the necessity of national political formations – and, therefore, of Zionism – he was suspicious of the ways in which they could morph into tribalism, ethnocentrism or, in the current parlance, identity politics: ‘The excesses and errors of singularity must also be denounced.’ He worried that ‘a new singularity’ might ‘erect itself as a universal’ – the very essence of identity politics, which privileges certain identities (and their sufferings) as moral absolutes. Once again, then: the dialectic.
Learning through experience, rather than trying to force experience into ideology, was a key to Memmi’s ethos. From the Tunisian revolution – which he enthusiastically supported, and never disowned – he learned to be neither a populist nor a vanguardist. In Tunisia, working-class Jews – ghetto Jews – clearly intuited that a free Tunisia would not be a secular republic, and would make no place for them; it was the Jewish intellectuals who deluded themselves on this question. This experience humbled Memmi, and it rooted him deeply in the reality principle. Decades later, it was the reality principle that enabled Memmi to see – far before many other analysts – why the Arab Spring rebellions would fail. In February, 2011, just a month after the fall of Tunisia’s dictator and when the ‘Spring’ was in full swing elsewhere, Memmi presciently wrote: ‘What is very positive is that the Muslim Arab intellectuals can now express themselves, but the basic problem remains intact: corruption, tyranny, and above all the impossibility up to now of separating religion from politics. As long as the Muslim Arab world has not made this separation, I am afraid that things will not change very deeply.’
More humility: Memmi admitted that he had often bet on the wrong horse, and he was willing to interrogate himself on the most painful subjects. ‘Am I a traitor?’ he asked in a 1962 article that explored the relationship of North African Jews to their Arab compatriots. Memmi’s answer was, essentially, ‘yes.’ For Arab Jews, it was Europe, rather than their native countries, that represented freedom and modernity: ‘The Arabic culture and language, the Oriental customs … These were the past, a past of historical gloom, of fear, and of economic and cultural poverty.’ But his greatest humility lay in his resistance to dogma (and dogma is, in the end, a form of arrogance). In a 1996 interview, Memmi discussed how, as he travelled and gave talks, ‘They ask me the same question: are the things I wrote still valuable? And I tell them, roughly, yes. But be careful.’ He quickly explained, ‘You can’t apply a schema, as the Marxists believed. The result is the gulag.’
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New York Times runs obituary for Albert Memmi