‘Murderous Humanitarianism’, 1932 and 2011

The regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi is richly deserving of a definitive overthrow and Criticism &c. is in firm sympathy with the Libyans who are attempting—against long odds—to achieve one. The pathetic intervention of Britain, France, Italy (Libya’s fomer colonial master and present neo-colonial patron) and the U.S., with the blessing of the sclerotic Arab League, however, prompts one to say, “Really ladies and gentlemen, this is just too much.”

Qaddafii had only recently diverted a generous stream of his petroleum cash-hoard from his preposterous sub-Saharan goodwill construction campaign to buy his way back into the graces of Europe and the U.S., after decades in the proverbial cold. It hasn’t been long enough to forget Tony Blair’s visit to the colonel’s celebrated bedouin tent in 2004 to shake every extended hand and prepare the ground for a serious reentry into the oil exploration game.

For its part, the policy of the U.S. since the start of the democratic revolutions in the Arab world can only be described as totally incoherent. Here the U.S. supports the murderous regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, there Secretary of State Hilary Clinton makes a pilgramage to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and declares it, “A great reminder of the power of the human spirit.” Clearly, no value is placed on diolomatic consistency.

The moment calls for a reproduction of “Murderous Humanitarianism”, a 1932 statement of the Surrealists on racism and colonial hypocrisy. This brilliant manifesto was translated from the French by Samuel Beckett and appeared in the historic collection Negro: An Anthology (1934) edited by the unjustly forgotten Nancy Cunard. For a fascinating account of the production of the anthology (which has not been reproduced in its entirety since the original edition) and Cunard’s relationship with Beckett, see Beckett in Black and Red: the Translations for Nancy Cunard’s Negro (1934) by Alan Warren Friedman. I have taken the text below from this work, but it also appears in Franklin Rosemont’s What Is Surrealism? (where I first came across it) and Surrealism Against the Current, edited by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski. It should be noted that among the signatories, two (Jules Monnerot and Pierre Yoyotte) were from Martinique.

•  •  •

Murderous Humanitarianism

by the Surrealist Group in Paris

For centuries the soldiers, priests and civil agents of imperialism, in a welter of looting, outrage and wholesale murder, have battened with impunity on the coloured races; now it is the turn of the demogogues, with their counterfeit liberalism.

But the proletariat of today, whether metropolitan or colonial, is no longer to be fooled by fine words as to the real end in view, which is still, as it always was, the exploitation of the greatest number for the benefit of a few slavers. Now these slavers, knowing their days to be numbered and reading the doom of their system in the world crisis, fall back on a gospel of mercy, whereas in reality they rely more than ever on their traditional methods of slaughter to enforce their tyranny.

No great penetration is required to read between the lines of the news, whether in print or on the screen: punitive expeditions, blacks lynched in America, the white scourge devastating town and country in our parliamentary kingdoms and bourgeois republics.

War, that reliable colonial endemic, received fresh impulse in the name of “pacification.” France may well be proud of having launched this godsent euphemism at the precise moment when, in throes of pacifism, she sent forth her tried and trusty thugs with instructions to plunder all those distant and defenceless peoples from whom the intercapitalistic butchery had distracted her attentions for a space.

The most scandalous of these wars, that against the Riffians in 1925, stimulated a number of intellectuals, investors in militarism, to assert their complicity with the hangmen of jingo and capital.

Responding to the appeal of the Communist party we protested against the war in Morocco and made our declaration in Revolution first and always.

In a France hideously inflated from having dismembered Europe, made mincemeat of Africa, polluted Oceania and ravaged whole tracts of Asia, we Surréalistes pronounced ourselves in favour of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude toward the colonial problem, and hence toward the colour question.

Gone were days when the delegates of this snivelling capitalism might screen themselves in those abstractions which, in both secular and religious mode, were invariably inspired by the christian ignominy and which strove on the most grossly interested grounds to masochise whatever peoples had not yet been contaminated by the sordid moral and religious codes in which men feign to find authority for the exploitation of their fellows.

When whole peoples had been decimated with fire and the sword it became necessary to round up the survivors and domesticate them in such a cult of labour as could only proceed from the notions of original sin and atonement. The clergy and professional philanthropists have always collaborated with the army in this bloody exploitation. The colonial machinery that extracts the last penny from natural advantages hammers away with the joyful regularity of a poleaxe. The white man preaches, doses, vaccinates, assassinates and (from himself) received absolution. With his psalms, his speeches, his guarantees of liberty, equality and fraternity, he seeks to drown the noise of his machine-guns.

It is no good objecting that these periods of rapine are only a necessary phase and pave the way, in the words of the time-honored formula, “for an era of prosperity founded on a close and intelligent collaboration between the natives and the metropolis”! It is no good trying to palliate collective outrage and butchery by jury in the new colonies by inviting us to consider the old, and the peace and prosperity they have so long enjoyed. It is no good blustering about the Antilles and the “happy evolution” that has enabled them to be assimilated, or very nearly, by France.

In the Antilles, as in America, the fun began with the total extermination of the native, in spite of their having extended a most cordial reception to the Christopher Columbian invaders. Were they now, in the hour of triumph, and having come so far, to set out empty-handed for home? Never! So they sailed on to Africa and stole men. These were in due course promoted by our humanists to the ranks of slavery, but were more or less exempted from the sadism of their masters in virtue of the fact that they represented a capital which had to be safeguarded like any other capital. Their descendants, long since reduced to destitution (in the French Antilles they live on vegetables and salt cod and are dependent in the matter of clothing on whatever old guano sacks they are lucking enough to steal), constitute a black proletariat whose conditions of life are even more wretched than those of its European equivalent and which is exploited by a coloured bourgeoisie quite as ferocious as any other. This bourgeoisie, covered by the machine-guns of culture, “elects” such perfectly adequate representatives as “Hard Labour” Diagne [1] and “Twister” Delmont.

The intellectuals of this new bourgeoisie, though they may not all be specialists in parliamentary abuse, are no better than the experts when they proclaim their devotion to the Spirit. The value of this idealism is precisely given by the manoeuvres of its doctrinaires who, in their paradise of comfortable iniquity, have organised a system of poltroonery proof against all the necessities of life and the urgent consequences of dream. These gentlemen, votaries of corpses and theosophies, go to ground in the past, vanish down the warrens of Himalayan monasteries. Even for those whom a few last shreds of shame and intelligence dissuade from invoking those current religions whose God is too frankly a God of cash, there is the call of some “mystic Orient” or other. Our gallant sailors, policemen and agents of imperialistic thought, in labour with opium and literature, have swamped us with their irretentions of nostalgia; the function of all these idyllic alarums among the dead and gone being to distract our thoughts from the present, the abominations of the present.

A Holy-Saint-faced International of hypocrites deprecates the material progress foisted on the blacks, protests, courteously, against the importation not only of alcohol, syphilis and field-artillery, but also of railways and printing. This comes well after the former rejoicings of its evangelical spirit at the idea that the “spiritual values” current in capitalistic societies, and notably the respect of human life and property, would devolve naturally from enforced familiarity with fermented drinks, firearms and disease. It is scarcely necessary to add that the colonist demands this respect of property without reciprocity.

Those blacks who have merely been compelled to distort in terms of fashionable jazz the natural expression of their joy at finding themselves partakers of a universe from which western peoples have wilfully withdrawn may consider themselves lucky to have suffered no worse thing than degradation. The 18th century derived nothing from China except a repertory of frivolities to grace the alcove. In the same way the whole object of our romantic exoticism and modern travel-lust is of use in entertaining the class of blase client sly enough to see an interest in deflecting to his own advantage the torrent of those energies which soon, much sooner than he thinks, will close over his head.

André Breton, Roger Callois, René Char, René Crevel, Paul Eluard, J.-M. Monnerot, Benjamin Péret, Yves Tanguy, André Thirion, Pierre Unik, Pierre Yoyotte

[1] Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese politician who collaborated with France’s colonial efforts in exchange for some small reforms and privileges.

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