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Opinion and Analysis: Culture | Politics | Social Movements

Enrique Dussel: Without Epistemic Decolonization, There Is No Revolution

Renowned Mexican-Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel was in Caracas October 6-10 as part of the first ever Eco-socialist School of Critical Decolonial Thought of Our America. A founder of the Philosophy of Liberation movement, Dussel has played a protagonist role over the last decade as one of the key theorists and public intellectuals of the so-called “Pink Tide” of leftist and center-leftist governments that came to power across Latin America. In conversation with journalist Clodovaldo Hernandez, the philosopher stresses the urgent need to decolonize epistemic frameworks in order to learn from the series of recent defeats suffered by progressive forces across the continent.  

In Latin America, progressive forces have been on the advance, and with them, discussions of questions such as decolonization and a new political ethic. But in the last few years, there have been setbacks, both in elections and in other ways. Being the world traveler that you are, would you say that reaction is going to triumph and impose once again a doctrine that encircled us in the ‘90s, neoliberalism, the end of history, postmodernity?

Effectively, from the end of the 20th Century, from 1999, it must be said due to the influence of the very particular Venezuelan experience, we have witnessed the advance of progressive forces [across the continent]. Today, when the absence of Hugo Chávez is most felt, his importance is more appreciated. Inevitably he is considered by both the left and the right as a watershed figure, a man who propelled forward many things and whose presence is sorely missed. 

But it’s not just individuals alone, but structures more generally, of two kinds. The empire, the United States, has always been modifying its practices to stop the emergence of the Latin American peoples. In one moment, there were the military dictatorships, then there was the appeal of the expansion of the transnational corporations and neoliberalism, which ran up against its limits. And then there’s what we call the political “spring” in Latin America with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. This changed the face of Latin America. I have a 2006 book titled, 20 Political Theses, in which I argued that we must rethink politics from the standpoint of this “spring”. 

Due to distinct internal and external factors, we are in a situation in which– whereas before we took two steps forward– now we have taken one step back. But in no way can we speak of this as a triumph of reaction. History is a struggle, a complex, long-term dialectic: even the triumphs are short-lived and one must know how to accumulate forces for the next two steps forward. And these steps must be taken because these [right-wing] governments that are emerging and even the “No” in Colombia demonstrate that the people have been disoriented. In the case of Argentina, the people voted for Macri and in large part are already regretful, and suffering the consequences.  

The same thing is going to happen to the Brazilian people. They were filled with happiness with the gains and what they wanted, sometimes selfishly, was to be able to enjoy them and increase them. They lost sight of the fact that those gains were won thanks to severe, objective leadership that had defended the interests of the people. Now, when they slam the breaks, many of those that voted [for the right-wing] are going to bash their noses against the wall and they are going to ask, “What did we do?” Sometimes the people, deceived by the press and by illusions, have to confront reality and suffer the inevitable. Of course, those who saw the danger and were against it suffer more, but also those who allowed themselves to be fooled by the smoke and mirrors. We must prepare the [next] two steps forward, understanding that those that are governing [in Argentina and Brazil] have not triumphed. Nor should the progressive left believe that the gains they achieved were definitive­– these achievements are always very fragile. The left must accept that they have committed errors, that there has been corruption. The militant sometimes is austere, disciplined, and combative while among the bases, but upon reaching positions of power that have a high salary, they buy a car, moves to a new house, and they become corrupt. We must be very careful in the next two steps forward in order to not repeat the errors we’ve committed. 

Those next two steps forward, according to numerous analysts, have much to do with the necessity of a cultural revolution, that there is a true revolutionary change in the minds and souls of the people. What was lacking in this “spring” period to bring about a revolution in the cultural arena? 

We have a certain interpretation of reality, which though it may seem attractive, is a prison. What we are discovering is a tradition of critical thought in Latin America that began forty years ago. When we proposed a Latin American philosophy of liberation, they called it anecdotal. The professors educated in the United States and Europe saw it as a product of ignorance, not of a Latin American culture. We had to bang on the doors of the universities and they rejected us, they didn’t allow us to be professors. Now [this philosophy] has gained strength, and what it teaches us is that we have in the depths of our heads a Eurocentric interpretation of everything, so deep that when one gives certain examples, people get frightened: “How is it possible that I saw things in such a unilateral, European way, rejecting my very self and justifying the domination that I suffered?” We must understand that the ultimate level of domination, and at the same time of historical transformation, is a certain vision of the world.  

And today this is what we call epistemological decolonization. Episteme means science, so it’s a decolonization of philosophy, science, and technology. We have to see that our Latin American world, that which we have before us, is colonial. We mustn’t continue believing that in 1810 o 1820 we liberated ourselves from Spain and became independent, since we fell in the hands of England and the US as part of a new neo-colonial period. As [José Carlos] Mariátegui and [José] Martí said, it’s time for our second emancipation, this is what we are fighting for. We are in a suffocating colonial situation, but much more subtle than before and much more extractive of our riches. The Spanish robbed us of little things. Now they steal even our souls. The domination is no longer a soldier in a Spanish detachment hundreds of kilometers away; now they slip into our beds with television and propaganda. It’s much more terrible than before, and that’s why our critical thought must trace a long-term horizon, since a revolution that does not reach the decolonization of thought continues to be colonial. Not even the left is vaccinated against still being colonial. Not even the most vanguardist, so-called “orthodox” tendencies that cover their eyes with new dogmas. The task is difficult, but we’ve already begun. We have to become conscious of what we are producing– now we don’t depend on the US or Europe, it’s ours! It’s ours because our starting point is a different reality. Slowly, we have learned to think and now we have to take responsible for making much deeper changes

The opposition to this Bolivarian Revolution is not only that of a liberal bourgeois political and economic conservatism: it’s colonial – historically, culturally, and even spiritually and in terms of Christianity – they don’t know how to think for themselves, they despise themselves. And sometimes the masses of people– such is the influence of the education, the media, the television– come to hate themselves and aspire to leave. They won’t be able to [emigrate], so they will have to learn to re-valorize what is their own and on that basis construct a project of happiness. 

Venezuela is experiencing a pretty grave crisis from the economic and social points of view. This brings us to an old question many people have asked, “What is philosophy good for?” and in cases like ours, “Of what use is it for someone who’s hungry?”

I should say that this conviction of mine has been accumulating from when I was a 23 year-old recent graduate, nearly sixty years ago. As I grow, gaining in years, but not losing youth, I see more and more the importance of philosophy. It’s not a question of eating today, but eating tomorrow. It’s, as one leader said, not a matter of giving someone a fish, but of teaching them to fish (that is, if there are fish, if capitalism hasn’t killed them all).  

I consider philosophy to be so important that it even bewilders me when I am asked what it’s good for. It serves to change the mind, the interpretation in order see what they are doing to us. Because besides that, there are only appearances: the Coca-Cola, the wealth, the [North] American way of life. Even US citizens themselves are completely disillusioned with what they are. It’s enough to see the two candidates they have. The people don’t believe in either of them. And that people, who seem to be the image of democracy, is a barbarized people, I dare say. They are given the news that is convenient, almost all US news. They go to Syria and they destroy it without even knowing where Syria is. They destroyed Aleppo without knowing anything about that place. 

Before, they destroyed Baghdad, which is the center of a world culture, the origin of modern mathematics, of astronomy, where there lived the great Aristotelian philosophers, who later moved to Fez, to Córdoba, and were only known in Paris in the 13th Century. But in Baghdad, four centuries before, they already had the Aristotelian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. In Aleppo, which they are now destroying, in the 8th Century, the Arabs adopted Greek philosophy and changed the world. The Muslim world is deeply rational, and they have no trouble adopting new technology because they did so 5 centuries before Europe. Baghdad is Mesopotamia, the origin of human culture– there was Hammurabi, there were the people of Israel in exile, there they began to write the Bible in cuneiform style. And Mr. Bush, who is said to be a right-wing Christian fundamentalist, is a philistine who doesn’t know what’s in front of his nose– he destroyed Baghdad without knowing that he was destroying the cradle of the Bible. Philosophy allows us to understand what is reality in order to see that what they propose to us are fantasies and then go the essence of things. And that is the origin of any revolution. 

I don’t want to cite the classics of Marxism, but someone said that a revolution without theory is not a revolution. In this sense, Hugo Chávez was a statesman– exceptional the world over– who read and studied, and when he spoke, showed the books that he had read that week. What other president reads like Hugo Chávez books of history and politics? And the opposition always attacked him with Eurocentric atavisms. I would like to have them debate with my colleagues at the university to prove to them that they are grossly ignorant, since they devote themselves only to discussing the Europeans. You ask them, “Who are you?” And they respond, “Kantian”, “Hegelian”, “commentator of Habermas”. “You are all imitators,” I tell them. “Where is our philosophy? You are not philosophers.” I call them subsidiaries, and they are, shamefully. Do you think that Habermas is going to accept you because you’re propagating his thought? No, he’s not going to respect you because you haven’t created anything new. The point is to criticize Habermas and be more thorough than him, but from Venezuela. Then, Habermas himself would say, “he or she is pulling the rug from under my feat, but from a different situation.” But they don’t step up to the plate, because they are cowards politically and theoretically ignorant. 

You have stressed the need for promoting a philosophy of Latin American indigenous peoples. How can this philosophy be brought together, taking into account that the majority of indigenous peoples didn’t have a written language?  

Aristotle, Plato and the rest of the Greeks said that philosophy is mythopoetical (creator of myths). I refer to them, because philosophers are Hellenocentric, and if I cite the Greeks, they’ll pay attention to me. But if cite Confucius, Lao Tzu, or the Upanishads, they’ll say, “this is folklore,” because philosophy is supposedly Greek, Medieval, and Modern– a Eurocentric invention. Myth is a method of doing philosophy, in contrast to the thinking of some formalist, analytical philosophers of the English language who now have political and philosophical power in almost all of the philosophy departments on the planet. They are not interested the political, economic, and psychological content of philosophy, but only in speech – formalism without content. But language is an instrument and it’s not a matter of how I speak but of what I’m saying. Myth, said my professor in the Sorbonne, the very famous Paul Ricoeur, is a rational story based on symbols. Myths are rational: they give justifications, make arguments, symbolically though not unambiguously. You have to have a hermeneutic to know how to interpret myths in order to see their rational content, not the stupid part invented for little kids. For example, the story of Adam and Eve is a myth in Ricoeur’s sense; it’s a very rational, serious thing. It’s for grownups, not for kids. As a myth, it’s symbolically coded: the lesson is not original sin, but the structure of moral imperfection now and forever. It’s a story that comes from another myth, that of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia, in the 5th Century before the common era, 25 centuries ago. The Jews were in exile in Babylon– just 50 kilometers from Baghdad– and they came across the myth of Gilgamesh. But if I read only the myth of Adam and Eve, I don’t understand anything because I don’t know where it came from. It’s an absolutely relevant myth that I can re-read in every epoch and learn things.  

Myth is a great instrument of wisdom. They say that myth is not philosophy, but philosophy isn’t even science, but rather it ponders the principle of science. The geometrician is a scientist, but the philosopher asks what is space. The mathematician is a scientist, but the philosopher inquires into what is a number, what is a quantity, going to the foundation of science. When you ask a shaman in a Quiche or Guahibo indigenous community what is the feeling of death, he tells you a myth and gives it a meaning, and the philosopher can compare the different meanings each civilization has given to death. This is key because some, like the Greeks, the Hindus, the Indo-Europeans, would say that the body dies, but the soul is immortal. In contrast, the Semites, the Babylonians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians would say that the human being as a whole dies, but is later resurrected. Another myth. Neither of the two can be proven scientifically, but each one gives a different meaning to life. If I believe that the soul is good, divine, eternal, the body is the origin of evil and having sexual desires is a sin as poor Saint Augustine believed.  

Osiris, three centuries before the founding of Christianity and 19 centuries before Marx and Engels, asked the dead, “What good have you done on this Earth?” And the dead person responded, “I gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and a boat to the pilgrim on the Nile.” All are vital principles related to the flesh that were common to the Semites, the Jews, as well as the Christians until the latter became Greek and began to think about the soul in the 4th Century. Before then, the Christians didn’t believe in souls, but in resurrection. Feeding the hungry means nothing to the Greeks because if the body dies, the soul remains. But for the Semites and for the founder of Christianity, feeding the hungry is the first obligation: that’s politics, an economics, a conception of the world. The opposition to Chavismo thinks about the salvation of the soul – they’re Greek – while those who believe in feeding the hungry stand with the founder of Christianity despite some being self-declared atheists. The crisis in Venezuela thus presents itself in philosophical terms between those who want to feed the pueblo and those, who in the name of modern principles, are against the Semitic tradition and even against Christianity. Yet in the name of Christianity, they criticize a revolution that has given food to the hungry. What interests them [the opposition] is feeding capital. The philosopher shows them their contradiction … 

What I’m talking about is not a critique of 12 or 15 years, but of our entire world history of 5 thousand years, which is now boiling over, because Eurocentrism is coming to an end. China and India are beginning to grow and there will be a multi-polar world. The situation is changing – but not by tomorrow, nor the next day, nor in 10 or 20 years – it’s going to take the whole 21st Century. He or she who wants to make full on revolution in her life is kidding themselves: revolutions go on for centuries. You have to be prepared to throw a backpack over your shoulder and joyfully enter history, because if you’re not happy, you won’t endure the process. We took a small step backwards [chuckles], and now we’ll see down the road when we’ll take the next two forward. We must have hope!

Translated, edited, and abridged for by Lucas Koerner.