Mustapha Khayati, situationist international, marx

Insurgent Words: The Political and Linguistic Work of Mustapha Khayati

7 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

In this column, I want to introduce the political and linguistic thought of Mustapha Khayati. His work is not often discussed in mainstream scholarship, yet his role in the 1968 uprisings and his preface to an incomplete Situationist Dictionary deserve attention. 

They invite us to reflect on the role of language in revolutionary movements and emphasize the importance of scholars from the global south in debates that previously have been framed as ‘European’ – in this case the political-artistic work of the Situationist International. 

A time of great intellectual and political ferment

Historians have noted the global and interconnected natures of the revolutionary struggles of the 1960s: the 1968 protests in Dakar, Dar es Salaam and Tunis; the political movements in Mozambique and Vanatu; the guerrilla warfare in Vietnam and student protests across South America toppling authoritarian regimes; the rise of the Black Panther Party in the USA (George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968, 1987; Daniel J. Sherman et al., The Long 1968, 2013; B.E. Bertelsen and Knut, 1968 and its Other Worlds, 2018). 

Stokley Carmichael gave his ‘Black Power’ speech at the Dialectics of Liberation Congress in 1967. He emphasized the importance of the global south in revolutionary struggles:  

Reinserting Khayati’s work into the historical narrative foregrounds revolutionary solidarities and shifts the geographies of knowledge. 

‘The fight must be waged from the Third World. There will be new speakers. They will be Che, they will be Mao, they will be Fanon.’ (Cited in David Austin, Moving Against the System, 2018)

Carmichael’s assessment is not about an imagined future, but about the times he witnessed: events in the colonial metropoles – in Paris and Berlin – were shaped directly by African freedom struggles, and Africans played a central role in the European insurgencies. 

Mustapha Khayati and May 1968

Thus, May 1968 in Paris might not have happened – or would have happened differently – were it not for a group of Algerian and Tunisian student activists, who brought with them their experiences, histories and knowledges (see Maud Anne Bracke, May 1968 and Algerian immigrants in France, 2009, and Kathryn Medien, Foucault in Tunesia, 2020; see also Sean Mills, A Place in the Sun, 2016, on the influence of Haitians on radical politics in Quebec).  

One of the student activists was Mustapha Khayati from Tunisia. Khayati was central in shaping the contours of the insurgency in France, including our thinking about revolutionary language – he was committed to the idea that changing language is central to social and political change. 

Yet, relatively little has been written about him. We know some of his writings and we know that he left France in 1969 to fight for Palestinian independence, thereby dissolving the border between theory and practice. His actions are a pertinent reminder that anti-colonial struggles are global, connected and practical. After that we don’t know much – his entries on the English, Arabic and French Wikipedia are sparse. A collection of his papers was purchased by Yale University in 2015. 

Reinserting Khayati’s work into the historical narrative foregrounds revolutionary solidarities and shifts the geographies of knowledge. 

On the poverty of student life

In the aftermath of the Algerian revolution, Khayati – who at the time lived in France and was a member of the Situationist International – wrote the pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life  (1966).

Khayati lambasts “student passivity” and privilege, their trajectory as petits cadres of an imperialist-capitalist society, and he challenges students in France – the metropole and the seat of his former colonizers – to fight the colonial-capitalist system as a whole. He writes:

‘Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest … Yet the destruction of capitalism is once again a real issue, an event in history, a process which has already begun. Dissident youth must achieve the coherence of a critical theory, and the practical organization of that coherence.'

What is needed, according to Khayati, is an alliance of students and workers, as has happened in Japan; a unity of theory and practice, a ‘total critique of the world’ and the destruction of ‘the society of the spectacle’; that is, ‘the whole apparatus of commodity society’.  

The Student Union in Strasbourg printed 10.000 copies of his text and distributed them free of charge. The impact was tremendous, and newspapers gave it front coverage. The text was translated into a dozen languages and half a million copies circulated globally (Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of ’68, 2007). 

Although the pamphlet was published in France, Khayati’s politics were not focused on France; they were transnational; they were articulated on a world-scale, not within a nation state. 

The global scope of his political-philosophical thought is passionately articulated in the closing lines of Address to the Revolutionaries of Algeria and All Other Countries (1965). The text, which was distributed secretly in Algeria, acknowledges comrades around the world, fighting against the colonial-capitalist order in Baghdad and Hungary, in Denmark, Japan and the Dominican Republic. 

And in Contribution Towards Rectifying Public Opinion Concerning Revolution in the Underdeveloped Countries (1967), he offers a world-system reading of capitalism as an imperialist system that is built on super-exploitation: ‘wherever the commodity is present, there are only slaves’. Yet, capitalism’s destructive presence brings about resistance, and in the ‘underdeveloped countries’ – crippled by colonial domination – the avantgarde is not the proletariat but the peasantry. 

Yet, while national liberation movements were successful in fighting imperialism, they did not overcome capitalism and instead created ‘petty-bourgeois or military urban strata’. What is needed is for the movements in the global south to turn away from the Euro-centric ‘power of the soviets’, and to develop their own trajectories of peasant-led revolutions. 

Khayati concludes by turning the oppressive colonial idea of underdevelopment on its head: ‘The only people who are underdeveloped are those who see a positive value in the power of their masters’. 

Captive words, preface to a situationist dictionary

Khayati also wrote about the politics of language. He draws on a language-philosophical tradition that sees existing language as alienating and oppressive; as reflecting structures of inequality and hegemony; as restricting and limiting our expressiveness (see Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language, 1972).

In his essay Captive Words (1966), Khayati urges us to tear words, and thus worlds, apart and to reinvent their meanings. He urges us to remake language so that we can speak about new futures. He writes:

‘Every revolutionary theory has had to invent its own terms, to destroy the dominant sense of other terms and establish new meanings in the ‘world of meanings’ corresponding to the new embryonic reality needing to be liberated from the dominant trash heap … It is impossible to get rid of a world without getting rid of the language that conceals and protects it … Because language is the house of power, the refuge of its police violence.’

Once linguistic form and meaning sediment, then language risks to be turned into a new system of oppression. To change language – to engage in practices of linguistic détournement – is thus ‘a permanent practice’, not a once-off achievement.

Linguistic and political action overlap, they fuse together in changing the world. The impetus is anti-authoritarian: to create a liberated language that will allow us to reimagine the world, a language that is linked to our experience, that allows ‘a passing from language to life’. It is a theory of language that positions speakers as agents: we can change language, we can change the world.

This is a bold claim, and some may say that it is a romantic view of language (which does not necessarily have to be a bad thing!). It is also a view that is familiar to us from contemporary discussions about language and symbolic violence: replacing ‘he’ with ‘she/he’ and now with ‘they’ unsettles existing ways of thinking and speaking. It foregrounds the transformative possibilities of gender-fluid identities. 

Words can become insurgencies

Words, just like people, can be insubordinate; words can become insurgencies that shake the boundaries of conventionalized language through forms of poesis. Khayati continues: 

‘Liberated language [is] language recovering its richness, language breaking its rigid significations and simultaneously embracing words and music, cries and gestures, painting and mathematics, facts and acts … Every revolution has been born in poetry.’

Revolutionary language is never fixed but always – and necessarily – in motion. Once linguistic form and meaning sediment, then language risks to be turned into a new system of oppression. To change language – to engage in practices of linguistic détournement – is thus ‘a permanent practice’, not a once-off achievement. The goal is to undomesticate language, to turn it into ‘a practice free from all constraints’, ‘everything is permitted’. 

Thus, words can never be fully captured by power, meanings can never be fixed once and for all, the very idea of creating ‘Newspeak’ is fundamentally impossible. Khayati writes:

‘The same reasons that prevent our adversaries (the masters of the Dictionary) from definitively fixing language enable us to assert alternative positions that negate existing meanings. But we already know that these same reasons also prevent us from proclaiming any definitive certitudes. A definition is always open, never definitive.’

It is no surprise that the dictionary was never published; its publication would have betrayed the very ideas formulated by Khayati. The dictionary’s beauty lies in its incompleteness. A revolutionary dictionary can never be more than a preface: the future – just like language – remains fundamentally open. 

Bringing to the Surface 

One of the projects of current decolonial scholarship is to surface lesser known voices, and to ensure that the philosophical-political work of these scholars becomes visible in the academy; thereby undoing the whiteness of mainstream critical theory (Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, 2016). 

The Situationist International is conventionally portrayed as a European movement. Yet, it had many members from Algeria and Tunesia, as well as members from Congo and Venezuela (see Christopher Gray, Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, 1974).

Thus, the Situationist International was a global movement, shaped, like the ‘long 1968’ in general, by the anticolonial struggles of the time. Revolution – a concept that is central to the artistic-political imagination of the Situationists – has to be thought of on a world scale, recognizing the interconnectedness of struggles. Mustapha Khayati is adamant: ‘The next revolutions can find aid in the world only by attacking this world as a whole.' (Address to the Revolutionaries of Algeria, 1965)