There are several ways of approaching the question of universality in Marx. And it is impossible to do this without considering, at the same time, some implications that Marxism has had for this concept. The starting point can only be negative: what universality is not.
The concept of universality has often been superimposed on that of universal history. In this way, it is the universal character of the concept of history that also guarantees the normative character of political universalism. An example in the liberal field is gradualism, according to which there is a universal concept of freedom, which, however universal, remains trapped in the gap between the latent universal and its actualization. From this perspective, entire populations can be kept in the “waiting room of history,” (Chakrabarty 2000) waiting to be ready for freedom. In the Marxist field, we find a similar conception. Pivoting on a stadial conception of universal history, non-capitalist modes of production and non-state political forms have been defined as pre-capitalist, pre-modern and pre-political. Marxism of the Second and Third International, pursuant to a normative philosophy of history, set itself the task of accelerating the phases towards the final stage of socialism, thereby justifying the destruction of the rural forms of self-government and imposing on so-called backward countries an ordeal through the historical stages that lead to socialism. Thus, a crash course towards capitalism was imposed on rural, as well as other, populations, generating conflicts and frictions still visible today.
Another way of understanding universalism emphasizes its polemical nature. If capital produces its own universalism in terms of abstract labor, commodification, and exploitation, alternative universality would take shape in reactive and polemical terms, by generalizing the common condition of exploited as constituting a common front against a common enemy. This type of universalism was at the basis of the holy war against imperialism declared by Zinoviev at the Baku Congress in 1920. This concept of the universal overcomes local differences by producing identity pursuant to its juxtaposition to another universal. A long tradition of Western Marxism held that the struggle against imperialism or the real universality of capital already constituted the common ground for the universalism of the oppressed. But what this universalism does is to conceal differences in the name of a binary opposition toward a bad universal to be fought. Unless one ascertains that those differences re-emerge in inverse proportion to the intensity of the polemical opposition put in place between universals.
This does not mean that we must give up on universality. It means that we must free it from the philosophy of history and from the binary oppositions in which it is bridled. It means, in part, that we must also free it from the excess of theory that imprisons it in those binary oppositions and, instead, begin digging into the real historical material. This can be done by actually looking at Marx from the margins, without “the master-key of a general historic-philosophical theory, whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical” (Shanin 1983, 136).
A double move can be made starting from Marx and the tradition that refers to his name. A first move was made by Vera Zasulich when, on February 16, 1881, she wrote to Marx to ask his opinion on the Russian rural communities. According to the Russian Marxists, these communities constituted an obstacle to progress towards socialism and, therefore, deserved to disappear or be destroyed. Marx replied that his theory “provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune. But the special study I have made of it […] has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia” (Shanin, 124). Marx showed himself to be closer to the populists than to the Marxists. This letter was hidden by Plekhanov so that one of the possibilities opened by Marx and the communist tradition was marginalized. But this underground current was not entirely quashed. It continued to flow and to conflict with the dominant current.
Indeed, it is possible to bridge Marx’s letter to Zasulich with another letter – that written on October 24, 1956 by Aimé Césaire to Maurice Thorez, who, at the time, was the secretary of the French Communist Party. In that letter, Césaire denounced the paternalism of the Communist Party’s members, “their inveterate assimilationism; their unconscious chauvinism; their fairly simplistic faith, which they share with bourgeois Europeans, in the omnilateral superiority of the West; their belief that evolution as it took place in Europe is the only evolution possible, the only kind desirable, the kind the world must undergo” (Césaire 2000, 149). Finally, denouncing the “emaciated universalism” that suppresses the multiplicity of particular and alternative paths of development, Aimé Césaire presented an alternative vision of universalism, based on solidarity that respects the particulars. With that letter Aimé Césaire announced his resignation from the Party. It is along these different coordinates and with these letters, which are all the while political statements, that the legacy of insurgent universality takes shape.
Insurgent universality is an experiment with time, space, and politics. If one casts off the dogma of the philosophy of universal history, the enormous political and economic material that constitutes the present ceases to be organized in terms of advanced, backward or residual forms. Rather, it becomes an interweaving of temporalities that recombine in the moment of an insurgency. As happened in Russia with the rural commune when populists and Socialist Revolutionaries tried to combine the forms of local self-government and collective ownership of the peasant communities with the workers’ councils. As was the case during the Paris Commune when the Communards referred to “archaic” and medieval forms of local self-government to reconfigure them in a socialist sense. These experiments must be investigated not in the abstract, but by digging through the temporal layers of existent historical material.
Insurgent universality is an experiment that, by creating new institutions and reactivating others from the past, reconfigures political space. Its scale is neither the nation nor world democracy. Its universalism is not given by spatial extent, but by a way of practicing politics. It is about the third institutional dimension beyond the binary opposition of constituent and constituted power. It is not stuck in the reaction to power.
If universalism is potentially valid for everyone, even those who do not want to be subsumed, as, historically, the Russian peasants during the revolution and the non-European populations during anti-colonial struggles were, the insurgent universality is open to anyone who questions his or her position in a given order and acts to change the entire order.
The logic of the former universalism is still colonial. It presupposes unity to produce new unity. And this always depends dialectically on an alterity towards which it must be possible to trace exclusions and juxtapositions. Insurgent universality, instead, has freed itself from this obsession with unity and with -isms. It is an experiment with the democratic excess of the plurality of powers. And it is the incompleteness of this experiment, not the experiment in itself, that is shared. This is the meaning of the beautiful image given to us by the Zapatistas in their 1996 Fourth Declaration: “The world we want is one where many worlds fit.” Insurgent universality begins with this plurality of worlds, authority, and forms of self-government; it begins with equal access to politics in the form of assemblies and groups; it begins with the Communard’s universalization of politics and property.