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According to the Martinican author and political theorist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), violence fundamentally defined the meaning and practice of colonialism, and as such violence was central to the effort to resist and overthrow colonial rule. For Fanon, violence was both the poison of colonialism and its antidote.
Fanon arrived at this view on violence largely through his work as a psychiatrist. He was born in Martinique and trained in France, later working in a hospital in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, under the auspices of the French colonial administration. Most of his psychiatric patients were native Algerians, many suffering from the mental and physical turmoil of colonial degradation, including the experience of torture at the hands of French interrogators. Some of these French torturers were also his patients, and by working with them Fanon learned how the “disease” of colonialism also infected the mind of the colonizer. Beyond the hospital walls, Fanon saw how the constant presence of French police stations and military barracks conveyed to the Algerians the clear message that they were little more than animals, to be beaten, dehumanized, and contained for the sake of colonial interests. He thus gained first-hand knowledge of the damage that colonialism inflicted on the minds and bodies of African people.
On November 1, 1954, leaders of the embryonic Algerian national movement, known as the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), began the armed struggle for independence with violent attacks against French military and civilian targets, thereby rejecting the path of negotiation and compromise that had been followed to this point. His experiences treating the sufferings of Algerians and witnessing this explosion of violent anticolonialism led Fanon to join the nationalist movement and advocate for the Algerian revolution as a militant activist and writer. He resigned his post at the hospital in 1957, unable to tolerate working for the colonial administration any longer.
Fanon’s clearest and most thorough articulation of his views on colonialist and anticolonialist violence can be found in the chapter “Concerning Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, his last work before his death. In it, Fanon argues that anticolonialism must be revolutionary rather than reformist. Colonialism, he explains, is “not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon 1963, p. 61). Since violence fundamentally defined the colonizing society’s existence, only “absolute violence” could get the colonizers’ attention. Absolute violence meant that no meaningful distinction was to be made between the French civilian settlers in Algeria and the French police and military forces. According to Fanon, they were all complicit in some way and thus all subject to anticolonial violence. This view of colonialism reflected Fanon’s Manichean understanding of the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized. The two were as opposed as white and black; in fact, they were white and black, and no middle ground or negotiated withdrawal was possible if the colonized were to ever be truly liberated. True liberation could only arrive when the binary categories of white and black were destroyed, expunged from the earth.
Fanon believed that anticolonial violence was required in order to achieve two intimately connected objectives: the expulsion of the colonizer and the mental “decolonization” of native Algerians. To Fanon, this latter aim was fundamental because institutional independence from the colonizer would mean little if the people remained psychologically trapped within a self-image as colonized, dehumanized objects. Fanon observed that Algerians were indeed violent under colonial rule, but this violence was directed toward other Algerians as an expression of self-hatred in which “black-on-black” violence represented a futile effort to negate the dehumanized identity imposed upon them. In the movement, led by the FLN, to redirect this violence toward the colonizer, Fanon conceived of a way to construct and affirm a positive political identity infused with a national consciousness liberated from the colonized mindset: “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect” (Fanon 1963, p. 94).
Individually and collectively, anticolonial violence for Fanon was an act of rebirth—”the veritable creation of new men” (Fanon 1963, p. 36)—that simultaneously bound the people together in an expression of national solidarity in which all are implicated in the struggle. Thus, violence was to shape the Algerian national consciousness as the people became collectively responsible for, and thus asserted popular authority over, the anticolonial struggle itself and its immediate product, an independent nation built upon socialist principles and institutions. Fanon argued that this expression of solidarity should not end at the national borders; the anticolonial struggle united the African continent as a whole, as Africans looked forward to the unique and varied postcolonial contributions that they would make on the world stage.
- Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.
- Fanon, Frantz. 1965. A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press.
- Fanon, Frantz. 1967a. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press.
- Fanon, Frantz. 1967b. Toward the African Revolution: Political Essays. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press.
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