Civil Society, History, Politics

The vernacular and the utopian

Sep 8 2020

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

Consult any modern written language dictionary and you will come away with the conclusion that the vernacular and the utopian are opposing concepts. While the vernacular (from the Latin word vernaculus) means that which is specific to a given country, place or region, the utopian (from Utopia, the title of Thomas More’s famous 1516 book) refers to that which
would be expected to characterize an imaginary government nowhere specific. Figuratively speaking, the vernacular is that which is right, pure, or of the land, whereas the utopian describes that which is make-believe, fanciful, chimerical. In the present text I seek to show that, contrary to this apparent contradiction and the consensus of dictionaries, the two terms share more complicities than one might imagine, and that those complicities have become more visible in recent times.

My title draws from the groundbreaking work of Teodor Shanin, one of the most remarkable and forgotten Marxist theorists of the twentieth century, which was instrumental in reclaiming the rich, diverse and dynamic character of Karl Marx’s thought (against all orthodoxies, both Marxist and non-Marxist). Shanin focused especially on showing the importance of Marx’s unpublished writings from the 1867 publication of the first volume of Das Kapital (the last major work to be published in his lifetime) until his death in 1883 – i.e., the notes of the “later Marx”, totaling no less than 30,000 pages. Until the publication of Capital, and notwithstanding his being more widely read on the history of non-European – namely Asian – societies than
any other European theorist of his time, Marx analyzed those societies from a Eurocentric and evolutionist point of view, based on the notion that such societies represented earlier, irrevocably obsolete stages of Europe’s developed capitalist societies. But even with regard to the latter societies, the only one to be analyzed by Marx with an impressive degree of detail and insight was England, then the most developed of capitalist economies.

A keen observer of the revolutionary movements then mushrooming right on European soil but which did not follow the proletarian revolution model he had theorized about, Marx began to pay closer attention to them, rather than ignoring them or forcibly squaring them with his theory. That was the case with the 1871 Paris Commune, but even more so with Russia’s
peasant-based revolutionary populist movement, which made itself strongly felt in the 1870s and 1880s. In order to understand the events in Russia, Marx obsessively undertook to learn Russian (as if it were “a matter of life or death”, his wife complained in a letter to Engels, Marx’s faithful companion and longtime collaborator). From then on and until the end of his life, the heterogeneity of histories and social transformations became central to Marx’s reflections. The theoretical consequences soon followed: there are no rigid laws of social development; there is not one, but several ways to reach socialism, and the analyses contained in Capital are only entirely valid in the case of England; far from being a hindrance or historical residue, peasants can, in certain circumstances, be a revolutionary subject. All this seemed odd, theoretically impure and “not very Marxist” in the eyes of the majority of late 19th-century Marxists. This development in Marx’s thinking was even regarded as the sign of an aging mind, and in fact one of the four versions of his letter to Vera Zasulich, a Russian populist, was censored by the Russian Marxists and remained unpublished until… 1924.

Curiously enough, the same accusations of theoretical impurity were to be directed against Lenin by his comrades after 1905-7.

What, then, were Marx’s sins? There were two. On the one hand, his valuing local and vernacular contexts and experiences, despite their deviating from the supposedly universal patterns. On the other hand, his viewing as positive and even utopian that which was old, seemingly residual (Russia’s peasant commune, based on community property and grassroots
democracy, albeit under the constant surveillance of the despotic tsarist state) and which, by reason of its voluntarism and moralism, posed a challenge to the objective (and amoral) laws of social evolution he himself had unveiled. All this sounds like ancient history and not relevant to our present and future, but that is really not the case. This kind of debate, centered on the
need to look to tradition in search of energies and clues for better futures and, more generally, on how difficult it is for pure theory, whatever it may be, to account for ever-recalcitrant, ever-changing reality, was present throughout the twentieth century and will accompany us, I think, in the current century.

Let me mention, by way of illustration, two very different contexts that were (and probably still are) marked by this debate. I will not go into the fact that not one of the revolutionary processes stabilized in the course of the last century was led by the working class in the precise way envisaged by Marxist theory, be they the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the Mexican revolution of 1910, the Chinese revolutions of 1910, 1927-37 and 1949, the Vietnamese revolution of 1945 or the Cuban revolution of 1959. In each and every one of these, the protagonists were the oppressed working people from both the countryside and the city, with peasants playing a decisive role in some of them.

The first context was that of decolonization in the Asian subcontinent (notably India) and in Africa. Every independence process was marked by the following dilemma: given that local realities strayed so far from the European cases analyzed by Marx that many adaptations would be required to even start to envisage Marxist versions of socialist-oriented nationalist
revolutions, should that fact be regarded as an added difficulty or an opportunity? In India there was a lively debate among the nationalist forces, with, on the one hand, Nehru’s position, linking socialism to the modernization in India, along lines that did not differ much from European modernization, and on the other, Gandhi, who saw in India’s rich culture and
community practices the best guarantee of true liberation. In 1947, Nehru’s position prevailed, but the Gandhian tradition has lived on and remains operative to this day. In Africa, the time span runs from 1957 (the independence of Ghana) to 1975 (independence of the Portuguese colonies).

At the risk of omission, let me say that the four most notable leaders in the anti-colonial liberation struggle were Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Leopold Senghor (Senegal) and Amílcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau). They were all intensely involved in the debate about the value of the African vernacular, and they all tried, albeit in different ways, to counteract Marx’s Eurocentrism and to envisage futures for their countries in which African culture, traditions and ways of life would be adequately valued. Each in his own way, they all contributed to a notion of African socialism that called for a diversity of paths toward development where African humanism was to replace unilinear progress at all costs and the class struggle would take a back seat to ancestral experiences of communal life.

They all included the possibility that the local, ancestral vernacular might become the mobilizing idea of a liberation utopia. Just like in the later Marx, with whom none of them was familiar, the vernacular would obviously have to be adapted for its utopian potential to be released.

By 1975, when the then Portuguese colonies gained independence, the terms of the debate had changed significantly, thanks to the external context and to the knowledge resulting from the evolution of the previous experiences of independence on the continent. But even then, the tension between the vernacular and the utopian manifested itself in multiple ways.
Just to give one example: At first, Mozambique’s Frelimo party was hostile toward everything traditional, viewing it as a past that had been hopelessly adulterated by the colonial violence. Hence its hostility toward the continuity of the traditional authorities in the role of administering justice in informal ways, carried out by members of the local community and based on African justice systems. However, dismantling the system of community authorities
proved so disruptive to the ways of peaceful coexistence within the communities – already beyond the reach of official justice anyway –, that the government had to reverse course and in 2000 ended up legitimizing those authorities, which now operate in parallel with the community courts. In similar fashion, in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde the tabanca (i.e., village) courts continued to exist, under the name of area courts (tribunais de zona).

The second context is quite different and a lot more recent. It occurred in Mexico with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and in Bolivia and Ecuador with the constitutional rocesses that followed the victories by Evo Morales (2006) and Rafael Correa (2007), respectively, in the presidential elections of these two countries. The Zapatista experiment constitutes a most
complex mixture of the vernacular and the utopian, combining to this day the ideals of social and political liberation on the one hand and, on the other, the valuing of the community culture and experiences of the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico. A counter-hegemonic reading of the ideals of human rights is thus interwoven with a radical demand for self-government and for constant innovation based on that which is genuine and ancestral. As
regards the two democratic experiments in Bolivia and Ecuador, they came after decades of mobilization of the indigenous peoples, as a result of which the latter’s ancestral worldviews made a decisive imprint on the Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009). The notion of development has been replaced by that of good living and the concept of nature as a natural resource has been replaced by the concept of nature as pachamama, mother earth, who must be cared for and whose rights are explicitly enshrined in Article 71 of the Ecuadorian Constitution. The interweaving of the vernacular and the utopian, the past and the future, was
enthusiastically embraced by the urban ecological movements of many countries, which knew nothing about indigenous philosophy but still were attracted by its respect for the values of the care for nature and the ecological awareness that drove them. As with the Zapatistas before, the new and innovative emphasis on the vernacular and the local gave rise to discourses that transcended the local and became part of cosmopolitan emancipatory
narratives of an anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal bent. This creative tension between the vernacular and the utopian did not end with the historical experiments mentioned above. I would venture to say that it will accompany us in the present century, no doubt strengthened by the alternatives brought about by the post-pandemic period. It is becoming increasingly evident that unless societies and economies adopt ways of life
not based on the unjust and unfettered exploitation of natural and human resources, human life on the planet is at risk of becoming extinct.


*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a Portuguese  m   professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coímbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article provided to Other News by the author,on Sept.07, 2020

site admin