Fanon, Violence, and the Struggle Against Colonialism

29 January 2018

Frantz Fanon was quite a provocative fellow. In his most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon says that “Decolonization reeks of red hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.” He also said this: “For the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.” Personally, I prefer Gandhi’s model of resistance. His anti-colonialist bona fides are just as strong as Fanon’s. And he resisted colonialism without violence.  

Strikingly, though as far as I know Fanon never commented on Gandhi himself, he dismisses the very idea of non-violence as a creation of colonialism—which is a little paradoxical seeming at first glance, since Fanon sees colonialism itself is a system of violence, one that can only be maintained by the forces of “guns and bayonets,” as he puts it. So how can it possibly create the idea of nonviolence?

The idea is something like this. When the colonizers sense that the jig is up, they co-opt the local elite—the intellectuals, priests or preachers, movers and shakers in the political class. These people are so deeply colonized that they collaborate with colonizers to keep a lid on things. They do so because their colonization conditions them to see revolution as a threat to values like dignity, equality, individualism, reasonableness.

Now such values strike me personally as quite important and well worth preserving. But Fanon sees things quite differently. He would say that in valorizing these western values, I am speaking like another colonized black intellectual. He would tell me to reject the values of my white European colonizers. He would tell me to join with other colonized people who must create new values. He knows, though, that the colonized elites are unlikely to follow such advice. They have allowed their colonizers get so deep into the consciousness, that they endorse those alien values as if they were their own.

Now I myself bristle a bit at the thought that values like equality or individualism are “alien.” They seem more like universal values to me. But that, Fanon, would say, is precisely what the colonizers want the colonized to believe. Not because it’s true. But because once you swallow the lie that revolution is a threat to these sham universal values, it’s easier to believe that nonviolent reform is the only legitimate way forward.

We should push back on Fanon here and ask him why exactly we should reject values like individualism or reasonableness as lies. He seems to offer two different answers to that question. For one thing, he clearly thinks that those who preach such values as universal are hypocritical. They claim them for themselves but deny them to the colonized. But his deeper criticism is that the supposedly universal values function as weapons in the hands of the colonizers by means of which they atomize and divide the colonized. The colonized elite in the urban centers of the colonies imbibe the values of the colonizers as essential to “modernization,” while the rural peasants cling to more traditional values and ways.

It is no wonder, he theorizes, that the colonized elites prefer reform to revolution. They get a seat at the table of reasonableness and get to negotiate the terms of reform with the colonizers, terms that will, no doubt, help to cement their own power and privilege. But trying to find reasonable compromises with the colonizers, the colonized elites because become ‘oh so reasonable’ instrument of the colonizers. In the end, reform promises no fundamental change at all, at least not for the masses. That’s why, on Fanon’s view, it’s always the masses and not the co-opted elites who are the leading edge of revolution. And that’s why on his view, nonviolent reform is for sell-outs, who are blind to their own colonization and complicit in not just their own oppression, but the oppression of the masses.

I recognize the searing power of both Fanon critique of Western values and of his call for revolution reform. But I am still not convinced. Call me colonized if you want, but I still prefer nonviolent reform to violent revolution. Nonviolent reform promises the best of both worlds—reconciliation between the colonized and the colonizers, on the basis of potentially shared values, all without bloodshed.

Of course, Fanon would dismiss this all as a nonsensical dream, rooted again, in my colonized consciousness. He would insist that in reality rather than in the world as we might dream it to be, the worlds of the colonized and colonizer are completely incompatible. The only path to liberation for the colonized is to completely smash the colonial world.  

I’m not entirely sure what his argument for this bleak conclusion is. He tends not to engage in the sort of argumentative back and forth that we anal analytic philosopher fetishize. Indeed, at times, he even dismisses the very idea of argument. The colonists may offer high-minded arguments and pretty speeches, Fanon says, but “when the colonized hear a speech on Western culture, they draw their machetes!”

Though colonizers may not like what Fanon has to say, colonized people the world over have found it truly inspiring. Which side are you on?  Listen in and join the conversation as we probe the views of this very provocative, challenging and influential thinker.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 31, 2018 -- 9:40 AM

I had never heard of Fanon,

I had never heard of Fanon, but yes, he sounds, as you have said: provocative. And angry. But, he does not have a lock on that. Colonialism is one of those inhumanities that for years was vogue, because the colonizers, ostensibly, were determined to save the poor wretches from themselves. They knew their professed altruism was facade, and that true intentions were about control of resources and subsequent wealth accumulation, but they figured important people would either not notice; not care; or would not be powerful enough to do anything about it anyway. Much of this mind-set goes back farther than colonialism and was based on other influences such as church and state. Steven Pinker and Susan Jacoby have written about sanctioned evil in early times. Colonialism was merely an extension of that. We are, as a species, adept at deceiving ourselves.