David Fieni — Review of Abdelkébir Khatibi’s “Class Warrior – Taoist Style”


Abdelkébir Khatibi

Class Warrior – Taoist Style, translated by Matt Reeck (Wesleyan University Press, 2017).

by David Fieni

This essay has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial collective. 

The improbable mash-up of Marxism and Taoism announced by the title of Abdelkébir Khatibi’s long poem from 1976, Class Warrior – Taoist Style, unfolds in language both brash and opaque, promising a kind of free verse handbook for militants interested in experimenting with new ways of combining action and creation, praxis and poièsis.  The book’s forty sections perform a détournement of the rhetorical techniques of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching while simultaneously re-purposing and deforming both Taoist and Marxist thought and discourse.  And yet while on the surface Khatibi seems to offer a poetic manifesto doubling as a sapiential treatise (and tripling as a tactical guide for revolutionaries), the text also tempts us with a retreat into the space of literary singularity.  Such a reading of the poem could appear to provide evidence of Winnifred Woodhull’s claim that “a subversive poetics has gradually replaced work for change in the political field,” how for Khatibi and many others writing in French since the end of the 1960s, “poetic language has come to be associated with an ‘other’ politics radically divorced from social institutions and from material relations of domination” (x).  The challenge of locating the political in Khatibi’s poem lies in the difficulty of reading it in the context of the author’s poetics of singularity without letting what at first glance appears to be a dehistoricized deconstructionism have the last word.

Perhaps more than any other postcolonial intellectual of his generation, Khatibi brought together the impulses of decolonization and deconstruction, while problematizing both.  Born in 1938 in El Jadida, Morocco, Khatibi came of age during the nationalist fight against the French Protectorate (1953-1956), studied sociology at the Sorbonne, where he wrote his thesis, Le Roman Maghrebin (1968), then returned to Morocco, where he directed the Institut de sociologie before joining the Centre de recherches scientifiques in Rabat in 1973.  He published in a wide range of genres, including novels, poetry, plays, and essays on art, culture, politics, philosophy, and literature.  His “thinking friendship” with Jacques Derrida culminated with the dialogue that grew out of Derrida’s The Monolingualism of the Other (1996).[1]  Khatibi viewed deconstruction as a decolonizing force targeting both “Western metaphysics” and the metaphysical tradition in Arab and Islamic thought.  He remains an important, if often overlooked, practitioner and theorist of deconstruction, even as he often challenged its half-hidden abstractions with lived practices taken from Moroccan life.  The publication of Class Warrior provides an occasion to revisit a major theme that runs throughout Khatibi’s work: how can the postcolonial writer remain at once creative, critical and committed?

Khatibi’s thinking about decolonization is remarkable for the unflinching critical acumen he brought to the task.  He begins “Pensée-autre” (“Other-Thinking”), the opening essay of 1983’s Maghreb Pluriel, by acknowledging Fanon’s call to look for “something else” outside “the European game,” but instantly interrogates what he understands as “the right to difference” at the root of this call:

The innermost depths of our being, struck down and tormented by the so-called Western will to power, hallucinated by humiliation, by brutal and brutalizing domination, can under no circumstances be absorbed by the naïve declaration of a right to difference, as if this “right” was not already inherent to the law of life, that is, to insoluble violence, to the insurrection against one’s own alienation.  (Khatibi 1983: 11)

Class Warrior — Taoist Style sets into poetic form the “insurrection” of “insoluble” differences transecting personal and collective experience.  Even as the language of political struggle pervades the poem, Khatibi opens the work with a warning against empty political language:

history is a word
ideology a word
the unconscious a word
words are like dares
in the mouths of the ignorant

or each sign regenerates
an undeniable freshness
don’t get lost in your own thinking
don’t disappear into that of others

test the blood of your thinking
because in answer to your question
you will find only quavering targets
action shapes words
like the arc consumes the crystalline arrow. (1)[2]

This first section highlights the importance of the context of an utterance (“the mouths of the ignorant”), distinguishes signs from thinking, urges equilibrium between one’s own thought-worlds and those of others, and asserts the formative force of action relative to language in an image that conceives of the speech act as an act of war (“action shapes words / like the arc consumes the crystalline arrow”).  Subsequent sections introduce the set pieces of the poem’s political vocabulary and set them in motion: “the class warrior” is a “sovereign orphan” (2) who engages “the class enemy” in a revolution both violent and erotic.  “While laughing,” Khatibi tells the reader, “prepare the act of very great violence” (9).  The class war is planetary in scope: “if all oppressed peoples took up arms / they would dance proudly on the class enemy” (20).

The class warfare described in Khatibi’s poem entails a “radical divestment” (21) on the part of the class warrior (désappropriation tranchante) in the act of revolutionary self-fashioning.  At the same time, the text warns against the kind of annihilation of cultural resources that imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism alike have sought to accomplish:

how to fight without losing ourselves?
know this:
now that action germinates in every body
and your body is changing directions
fling yourself toward the class enemy
and over and over display your fiery ardor
over and over draw the enemy in before pouncing. (38)

The question asked at the beginning of the above passage will find an answer thirty-three years later from Édouard Glissant.  To the question, “how to fight without losing ourselves?” Glissant will reply with his poetics of relation, affirming “I can change through exchanging with the Other without losing or distorting myself” (Diawara).  A question about fighting becomes one about transformation, yet in Khatibi the class warrior’s battle is ultimately about the radical opening of the self to difference and otherness, even if he prefers the language of violence to that of “exchange.”  These lines join difference and identity (as “two words to point to the same knot” (35)) to the “ardor” of the activated revolutionary body.  This is as close as the poem gets to delivering on the unique tactical advice promised by the title, as the class warrior engages the class enemy through a series of choreographed movements alternating between advance and retreat.[3]  In 1971’s La Mémoire Tatouée, Khatibi describes his own participation in anti-colonial battles in similar fashion: “In El Jadida, I improvised myself mobile protestor, changing neighborhoods, without a fixed plan: the labyrinth of streets provided the key to whoever could zigzag between the assault and our underground forces” (96).  The mobilized body lives the space of the Moroccan city as a new language as “the city was reinventing itself as a new syntax” (96).[4]  Just as the city at war became a language, the language of Class Warrior becomes a space of combat.

One important way that the manner of “class warfare” reveals itself in the poem occurs in the ways that Khatibi’s poetics of erasure, divestment, and self-disappropriation subvert the supposed content of the poem’s truth claims.  Section eighteen opens with the declaration that first draws then erases the image of a border in the mind of the reader:

the border between two countries is invisible
that’s how I can merge with your language without losing myself. (18)

To affirm the invisible nature of the border, Khatibi must first inscribe its imaginary existence in language.  It is not simply that national borders do not exist in some utopian realm of the poetic imagination, but rather that in the act of erasing the border the poem produces a gesture of signification, which in its vibratory symmetry, exceeds its monolingual signifieds, thereby opening a space where languages and beings may merge without being entirely erased.  The next lines return the reader to the sound of words, and thus to the affective violence of style and manner:

stick to the wild sound of the word “barbarous”

you will know the difference of difference
that your whirling jubilation will bring you
learn the language of the other
so that the language of your veins will be distilled

nothing can surpass the word “barbarous”
turned into a sword to fight sand

confront the rapidity of my language and learn. (18)

The poem here substitutes the supposed wildness of the barbarous person with the “wild sound of the word ‘barbarous.’”  By focusing on the sound of the word itself, Khatibi replaces the act of hearing the other without comprehending the root of this word, and instead exploits the sound substance of the signifier itself in order to hijack the direction of the violence that this word has for so long conveyed.  This tactic of linguistic “terrorism”[5] becomes the class warrior’s ultimate weapon, “a sword to fight sand.”  The final line of the section returns the reader to the speed and agility of the poem’s gestural style, its “shapeshifting calligraphy” (3).  Khatibi’s poetics are on full display here, as writing and erasure, sound and silencing, stasis and motion cancel each other out in the creation of a kind of sculpted static that only signifies in the interstices of the poem’s various semiotic modes.

As translator Matt Reeck has pointed out, Khatibi begins his idiosyncratic use of the term “class warrior” in La Mémoire Tatouée, where Khatibi mentions his desire to “abolish all tribes” (Khatibi 1971: 21) and become “a class warrior in the tribe of words” (191).[6]  While Reeck identifies the poem’s “Marxist vocabulary” as its “most noticeable lexical feature” (140), his view of the poem follows a line of argument put forward by Marc Gontard, one of Khatibi’s first scholarly critics, that would make of Class Warrior something like a kind of self-help book for personal transformation.  For his part, Gontard focuses on Khatibi’s use and deformation of the rhetorical devices in the Tao Te Ching without so much as once mentioning Marx or Marxism.  According to Gontard, “The class warrior ‘in the Taoist style’ erects an implacable enemy of all orthodoxies.  For him, ‘the great revolution has no heroes,’ and his action leads him to oppose all received ideas, established norms, and totalitarian knowledge” (89).  To be sure, there is much in the poem, and in statements that Khatibi himself has made about his work, to encourage a reading of the poem as an articulation of a kind of “permanent critique” on a personal level.  This critique is made possible not by the author’s privileged membership in a Republic of Letters, but rather in what he calls the “tribe of words.”  Class Warrior – Taoist Style would then teach a specific kind of combat against a rather idiosyncratically defined “class enemy”: a combat that takes place within the social world of language, and where the “class enemy” would be anyone belonging to a group that defines itself as orthodox and self-identical.

The second section of the poem sketches out the moving figure of the class warrior for the reader, declaring that

the orphan
is the class warrior
the sovereign orphan. (2)

Reeck’s euphonious translation veers ever so slightly away from an important subtlety in the French, which tells us that the class warrior is “sovereignly orphan” — souverainement orphelin.  The difference between adjective and adverb is the difference between ontology and manner: the class warrior’s orphan-hood is not essentially sovereign, but rather something he performs in a sovereign manner, that is, in a style that imitates the self-contained autonomy at the heart of sovereignty.  In the following lines, the poem itself imitates the rhetorical style of the Tao Te Ching, by first asking a question, and then instead of answering it, presenting the problem to which the orphan would be the solution:

what does “orphan” mean to us?
every hierarchy presupposes
a father a mother and a third
every politics
a master a slave and a third

 Khatibi posits the figure of the orphan as a remainder of the violent processes of both Freudian Oedipal normativity and a Hegelian/Marxian dialectical overcoming.  The “sovereignly orphan” class warrior is a product of revolutionary Oedipal violence that cuts him off from all tribes based on filiation, blood, and self-identity.  This is why, in the next line, Khatibi tells readers that “the historical person is a disgrace” (2).  Writing in the context of the 1970s, after the promises of national independence and Arab and Pan-African unity had begun to lose their luster, in the midst of the Moroccan années de plomb, which saw many of Khatibi’s friends and fellow writers imprisoned and tortured for taking political stands, Class Warrior grapples with the problem of neo-colonial mimicry in a supposedly decolonizing world.  “Can you disfigure the class enemy,” the very next lines ask, “without taking on his likeness? (2).  Khatibi aims to decolonize the very concept of class struggle, in a postcolonial world where the “class enemy” has changed appearance while still maintaining the relational class antagonism of a nationalist neoliberal elite.

The class warrior performs her sovereign autonomy without being defined by it, while at the same time guarding against being consumed by the class enemy, who is, according to the poem, the one consumed by sovereignty:

sovereignty burns
the class enemy
Like a straw dog (2).[7]

Here Khatibi alludes to the sacrificial straw dogs in the Tao Te Ching, which function in the ancient Chinese text as signifiers that only represent the object of ritual sacrifice.  Lao Tzu writes:

Heaven and earth are Inhumane:
they use the ten thousand things like straw dogs.
And the sage too is Inhumane:
he uses the hundred-fold people like straw dogs. (37)

Whereas the Tao Te Ching aligns all of creation (“the ten thousand things”) as signifiers to be consumed, Khatibi specifies the class enemy, which he defines in terms of signifiers arranged as binary pairs:

inside outside
nearby far away
visible invisible
capital work
this is the class enemy (3)

Khatibi’s tactical advice on how to win the war against the class enemy begins with a re-ordering of how one thinks and signifies, which will lead to a radical shift in praxis, and, ultimately, to a transfiguration of the body, which opens dialogue with the previously unthinkable.

how to defeat the class enemy?
change your thought categories
and you will change your actions
change your actions
and you will raise up your body
raise up your body
and you will talk with the unthinkable

politics is sensual
a shapeshifting calligraphy. (3)

The first three sections of the poem thus stage a fable of the class warrior combatting the class enemy in a way that joins language to action, action to the body, and the body to thought, all of it sketched out in the fluid calligraphic gestures of a phantom hand writing with disappearing ink.

Despite the many ways that the poem deforms Marxist thought, Khatibi’s fable remains faithful to a Marxist understanding of class in the sense that “class” for the class warrior is a fluid and changeable relation, and not a static universal category, as it is for the class enemy.  Specifically, for Marx, class described the relation between people, labor, and the means of production.  In a letter from 1852, Marx affirmed what he thought was new in his analysis of class, namely “that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production” (Marx 1978: 220).  While there is some validity to the argument that Khatibi’s work often appears to lack clear historical and geographical grounding (Woodhull xviii), one should also reproach critics who fail to situate the development of Khatibi’s output in the historical conditions of its production.  At the precise center of the poem, Khatibi addresses the historical nature of the class warrior’s being and provides what appears to be the poem’s most tangible reference to historical events.  The section begins with a question about the exploitation of one’s past by others and oneself, which Khatibi terms “the usury of your historical being.”  He asks:

how to defeat the usury of your historical being?
mobile ungraspable
you will confront the enemy while timing your breath

in appearing
take on the suppleness of the dancing reed (21)

Again, the enemy here would be the very conceptualization of class itself, and with it, categorical thought, understood as a fixed, rigid, and abstract essence, and the correct tactical advice for fighting this enemy would involve the agility and suppleness of the calligraphic gesture.

The next nine lines of the poem present a test case for locating the concrete historical and political circumstances of the composition of Class Warrior in relation to which the fluid poetics of the poem emerged:

cast off your personal fears
practice the asceticism of non-action

after the torture
demystify the torturers

O suicide
go back to fight the class enemy
or hit the open road
always nuance your aggression

 Read within the context of the poem alone, these lines might at first suggest that the “prisoner” being addressed is the person unable to escape from the confines of rigid thinking, who has become so indebted to the past by the “usury” of her “historical being,” that she has become subject to torture and sees suicide as the only escape.  The historical context, however, adumbrates these lines with the grim reality of the imprisonment, torture, and suicide of a generation of Moroccan activists, artists, and writers.[8]  While it is impossible not to think of Khatibi’s colleagues, such as Abdelatif Laâbi, who were in the middle of long stints in prison at the time that Khatibi was writing Class Warrior, it is nonetheless difficult to untangle the multiple threads of capture knotted in the single word “prisoner.”  Perhaps the most sympathetic reading would have Khatibi offering poetic support and solidarity to his incarcerated friends, urging them to see the hollowness of the torturer’s performance of sovereignty, and encouraging the dead to rise, find freedom, and continue the fight against the class enemy in the spirit of Taoist non-action.

While attention to historical context remains imperative for all reading, authorial intention can never be the only horizon delimiting reception of a text.  Whereas Khatibi’s avowed politics remain one particular force that shapes our understanding of Class Warrior, this is certainly a text that signifies well beyond the poet’s intentions, beyond his commitment to a political program or engagement with social institutions.  What is more important for potential readers today, I would argue, is the apparatus of the poem and its use for life, the text understood as a resource for resistance, transformation, and liberation from all forms of domination based on fixed categories of thought, including notions of identity deriving from normative configurations of race, ethnicity, religion, nation, and social class.  Can we only know the use-value of a poem by seeing the poet’s credentials as a militant?  On the contrary, the experience of reading tells us that each reader creates a new context of reception, engaging the war of categories, words, thoughts, action, bodies, the knot of identity and difference as we continue to “stretch” Marx for decolonial critique.[9]

The above comments are not intended as an apology for what some critics have seen as Khatibi’s failure to properly champion the cause of women’s writing in Morocco, or his disillusionment with the increasingly militant turn that the journal Souffles took in the late 1960s.[10]  It is the prerogative of criticism to examine contradictions that obtain when the text and the world are held up to each other.  A careful reading of this poem, however, shows how, in a first move, Class Warrior might seem to seduce the reader to withdraw into a revolution that would be exclusively poetic, but then, in a second move, the text exceeds its own status as a purely literary document.  In the “Preface Letter” he provides for Gontard’s book, Khatibi includes a telling confession that can help readers locate both the political in the text and better understand the relation between politics and style in the poem:

I don’t believe in any literature of liberation.  The writing incarnated in an obdurate experience, moves toward the impossible, silence and erasure.  And this is precisely where subversion is at work, a subversion one cannot announce ahead of time, nor give the force of law.  Maghrebian or not, the writer (whosoever bears or risks bearing this title), if he extricates himself from all supposedly “committed” aesthetic and artistic postures, immediately finds himself confronted by the unnamable.  Perhaps then he will be able to listen to the voice of others and of the absolute outside, perhaps he will speak, he will write without assistance, without salvation and without gods. (Khatibi 1981: 9).

Khatibi stakes out an adamantly secular position here, in the idiosyncratically Saidian sense of a “secular criticism.”[11]  His critique of “supposedly ‘committed’ aesthetic and artistic postures” and his affirmation of a politics of listening to the “absolute outside” elucidate the opening lines of Class Warrior: “history is a word / ideology a word / the unconscious a word” (1).  In lieu of hollow ideological repetitions, Khatibi aims for the unthinkable, the unnamable, and the impossible, and he does so in the spirit of detranscendentalized, anticolonial revolt inspired by Marxist thinking.  As he phrases it in a different section of the poem, “stick to an impossible mode of production” (37).  Khatibi replaces a “literature of liberation” with the search for an unforeseeable “subversion” that may effervesce within the established systems and structures of language, thought, and society.

This refusal of any facile, triumphalist poetics of “liberation” echoes throughout Class Warrior.  “I heard it said / that dream science cures your illness / I heard that and I balled my fists // knowledge will never cure your irremediable distemper” (28).  Here we have a poetics that resonates with Khatibi’s decision to stay in Morocco and work within the system, as opposed to seeking “liberation” in France or elsewhere, as so many writers and thinkers of his generation had done.  The taoist manner adopted by the class warrior would certainly seem to be a function of Khatibi’s life in Morocco under the oppressive regime of Hassan II, as the poet sought out ways to fight with agility, suppleness, and nuance without fleeing.

The publication of Class Warrior — Taoist Style in English is part of a resurgence of interest in francophone Moroccan writers, and Khatibi in particular in the Anglophone world.  Alongside Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio’s 2016 anthology, Souffles-Anfas (Stanford), Donald Nicholson-Smith’s monumental In Praise of Defeat, an 800-plus page collection of poems by Abdellatif Laâbi, Peter Thompson’s 2016 translation of Khatibi’s Tattooed Memory (L’Harmattan), and Burcu Yalim’s forthcoming translation of Khatibi’s Plural Maghreb (Bloomsbury), Reeck’s Class Warrior – Taoist Style provide readers of English important points of contact with the difficult, powerful, and generative work of Khatibi and other major Moroccan writers of his generation.  Nonetheless, new questions emerge with the translation into English of work that actively sought to terrorize, deform, and destabilize the French language and divest it of its capacity to commit “historical usury” against its users.  What happens to the virtual intertextuality of Arabic and “Berber” languages that animate the syntactical and rhetorical gestures of Moroccan literature in French (along with other signifying practices) when the Francophone text enters into the system of Global English?  And what new combinations of praxis and poièsis might Khatibi in English give rise to?


Diawara, Manthia.  2009.  Édouard Glissant: One World in Relation.  K’a Yéléma Productions, 48 min.

Fanon, Frantz.  2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox; introductions by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha. n.p.: New York: Grove Press.

Fieni, David.  2013.  “Introduction: Désappropriation de soi et poétique de l’intersigne chez Khatibi.”  Expression Maghrébines 12, no. 1 : 1-17.

Gontard, Marc.  1981.  La Violence du Texte : Études sur la littérature marocaine de langue française. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Gourgouris, Stathis.  2013.  Lessons in Secular Criticism.  New York: Fordham University Press.

Khatibi, Abdelkébir. 2017.  Class Warrior – Taoist Style. Translated by Matt Reeck.  Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

—.  2007.  Jacques Derrida, en effet.  Drawings by Valerio Adami.  Neuilly-sur-Seine: Al Manar.

—.  1999.  La Langue de l’autre.  New York: Mains secrètes.

—. 1971.  La Mémoire Tatouée: Autobiographie d’un Décolonisé.  Paris: Les lettres nouvelles.

—.  1976.  Lutteur de Classe à la Manière Taoiste.  Paris: Éditions Sindbad.

—.  1983.  Maghreb Pluriel.  Paris : Denoël.  Unpublished translation by Olivia C. Harrison.

—.  1981.  “Préface-Lettre.”  Preface to La Violence du Texte : Études sur la littérature marocaine de langue française, by Marc Gontard, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Laâbi, Abdellatif.  2016. “Contemporary Maghrebi Literature and Francophonie.”  In Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics. Edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Lao Tzu.  2015. Tao Te Ching. Translated by David Hinton.  Berkeley: Counterpoint. Accessed April 26, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Marx, Karl.  1978. “Class Struggle and Mode of Production.”  The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2D ed. New York: Norton.

Mufti, Aamir. “Critical Secularism: A Reintroduction for Perilous Times.” boundary 2 31, no. 2 (2004): 1-9. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed May 1, 2018).

Reeck, Matt. 2017. “Poetics of the Orphan in Abdelkébir Khatibi’s Early Work.” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy – Revue de la philosophie française et de langue française, 25, no. 1: 132-149.

Said, Edward.  1983.  The World, the Text, and the Critic.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Slyomovics, Susan. 2005.  The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Woodhull, Winifred.  1993.  Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.


[1] See especially Khatibi’s Jacques Derrida, en effet (2007) and La Langue de l’autre (1999).

[2] For simplified reference in both the English and French editions, numbered references to Class Warrior – Taoist Style refer to the section number, not to the page number.

[3] Compare this passage in Khatibi to the following passage from the Tao Te Ching:

There was once a saying among those who wielded armies:

I’d much rather be a guest than a host,
much rather retreat a foot than advance an inch.

This is called marching without marching,
rolling up sleeves without baring arms,
raising swords without brandishing weapons,
entering battle without facing an enemy. (108)

[4] For more on Khatibi’s singular understanding of “syntax,” see my introduction to a special issue on Khatibi, “Désappropriation de soi et poétique de l’intersigne chez Khatibi” (2013).

[5] The term comes from Laâbi, who used it in a 1970 issues of Souffles: “This is why Maghrebi or Negro-African literature of French expression is nothing short of a terrorist literature, i.e., a literature that on all levels (syntactic, phonetic, morphological, graphical, symbolic, etc.) shatters the original logic of the French language” (28).

[6]  Reeck discusses this on p. 140 in “Poetics of the Orphan in Abdelkébir Khatibi’s Early Work” (2017).

[7] I have amended Reeck’s translation here, which mistakenly substitutes “class warrior” where the text should read “class enemy.”

[8] See Slymovics (2005) for her important and brilliant account of the imprisonment, torture, and trials during the “years of lead.”

[9] The reference is to Fanon’s well-known claim, in The Wretched of the Earth, that “a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue” (5).

[10] See Woodhull, pp. xx-xiv.

[11] I am of course thinking of Edward Said’s introduction to The World, the Text, and the Critic, as well as the work of Mufti (2004) and Gourgouris (2013).


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