Fanon defends revolutionary violence

The naked truth of decolonisation evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence (Fanon, 1963: 37).

Frantz Fanon used his lived experience as a revolutionary in Algeria to develop a theory of revolution. Fanon was born in Martinique, a French colony. He later studied psychiatry in France, before practising in Algeria. After being dissatisfied with the political situation in Algeria, he joined the revolution against the French. Fanon’s political theory outlines the necessity of violence for removing colonialism from a state. He also maps out what will assist a revolution in succeeding, and some of the pitfalls that would prevent its success.

Fanon considers the whole colonial project to be one which is dominated by violence. Violence is the tool that the colonising power uses to maintain their domination over the colonial subject. Fanon engages heavily with the question of why the use of violence is necessary. He believes that the French have racialised views about the colonised subjects. The French see them as ‘the enemy of values, and in this sense he is absolute evil’ (Fanon, 1963: 41). Put differently, the colonial subject is incapable of rational logic and comprehension, so must be dominated through the only means available: violence. The colonial subject is ‘dehumanized’ by colonialism to such an extent, that ‘it turns him into an animal’ (Fanon, 1963: 42). Drawing upon colonial views of the evil, backward and tribalistic nature of the Algerian, the coloniser feels that their only option to maintain control and order is through violence (Fanon, 1952: chapters 5 and 6). For Fanon, colonialism is marked by the way that the cultural context of ‘blackness’ comes to dominate every aspect of the colonised person’s life, he explains that:

[w]ith the exception of a few misfits within the closed environment, we can say that every neurosis, every abnormal manifestation, every affective erethism … is the product of his cultural situation. In other words, there is a constellation of postulates, a series of propositions that slowly and subtly…work their way into one’s mind and shape one’s view of the world of the group to which one belongs…that view of the world is white because no black voice exists (1952: 152).

Therefore violence is used by the colonisers because of their understanding of the Algerian mind. The colonisers do not believe that Algerians will respond to reason or rationality. Racialised social views become so entrenched within the society that the colonised person comes to be seen as subhuman. Accordingly, in colonial logic, it becomes a necessity for the coloniser to deploy violence and repression to maintain control.

So for Fanon it is absolutely necessary that violence must be used to rid the colonised state of the colonial power. Tying in with his strong view that violence is also a beneficial process for the colonial subject, he further argues that ‘for the colonized people this violence, because it constitutes their only work, invests their characters with positive and creative qualities’, Fanon continues ‘[t]he practice of violence binds them together as a whole…[t]he group recognizes each other and the future nation is already indivisible. The armed struggle mobilizes the people’ (1963: 93). Revolutionary violence is seen to mobilise a community behind a common cause and creates a new bond within a group. This process becomes empowering and is integral to the success of the revolution as it builds a sense of community.

The sense of unification behind a common community purpose is crucial to the success of the revolution. When individuals who have been oppressed by colonialism over a sustained period of time feel solidarity with those in similar situations to themselves, they begin to find a common purpose linked to the personal feeling of catharsis that comes with reclaiming their state (Fanon, 1952: 145). In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon describes his own experience of coming out of colonial alienation to feeling a common purpose with others:

If the question of practical solidarity with a given past ever arose for me, it did so only to the extent to which I was committed to myself and to my neighbour to fight for all my life and with all my strength so that never again would a people on the earth be subjugated (1952: 227).

Colonialism causes a sense of common injustice between colonial subjects. Fanon describes how this becomes a mobilising force, writing that, ‘[d]ecolonialization unifies that people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity and by unifying it on a national, sometimes a racial, basis’ (1963: 46). From the revolutionary violence, he notes that ‘the ideas of a common cause, of a national destiny, and of a collective history’ are created which can serve as a positive grounding for the construction of a new political community (Fanon, 1963: 93). So for Fanon, if violence is used in the correct way, it has the ability to set good foundations for the construction of a new political community.

Integral to the creation of this common purpose, is the inclusion of everyone within the revolutionary project. Fanon rarely mentions women in his works, but in a chapter of A Dying Colonialism called Algeria Unveiled, he explains how the Algerians successfully included women in their revolution (1959: 35-68). This was in a time, and society, where women were still confined to the private sphere and not expected to have a role within society. Fanon notes how women were included within the revolution at every step of the way, they used the veil as part of a political protest, and capitalised on the new freedom of movement and attire that they were afforded by the colonialists to resist their rule (1959: 66-68). At first, women were used as sentries for meetings and couriers for messages (Fanon, 1959: 50-52). However over time, they would act as weapons couriers, and even assist in ‘terror’ attacks (Fanon, 1959: 54-55). As the colonialists began to realise that women were also supporting and participating in the revolution, they began to target women who began to use their veils as a tool of resistance (Fanon, 1959: 60-68). Fanon reports that the whole revolutionary movement valued the participation of women and supported what was to become an invaluable part of the revolution (Fanon, 1959: 60). So for Fanon all aspects of society should be mobilised in favour of the revolution to ensure an authentic common and shared purpose is cultivated.

However, violence is not without its pitfalls. There is a large human cost to revolutions. Expressing frustration in The Wretched of the Earth, he notes that ‘[w]hen the native is tortured, when his wife is killed or raped, he complains to no one’ (Fanon, 1963: 92). As Fanon views violence as the currency of colonialism, it becomes an omnipresent feature of daily life for the colonial subject (Fanon, 1963: 61). The physical violence which pervades colonialism is exacerbated by the structural violence of the colonial system which sees the ‘systematic negation’ of the colonial subject’s humanity (Fanon, 1963: 250). A few of the case studies that Fanon elucidates within his work will be recounted. All of these case studies involve both physical and mental trauma.

Noting the great physical and mental consequences of violence, it becomes evident that violence cannot be an end unto itself. Violence for Fanon must have a clearly prescribed purpose. He cautions:

The militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realizes that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up yet another system of exploitation. This discovery is unpleasant, bitter, and sickening: and yet everything seemed so simple before (Fanon 1963: 145)

Without a clear vision and plan in place for when decolonisation occurs, the Algerians would be doomed to reproduce the power relations of oppression and violence, with the only difference being, the parties to this power relation. Fanon stresses the importance of ensuring that all revolutionaries are involved in the political process of formulating a new reality – and not just the political elite – this will prevent segregation and alienation within the group (1963: 81). Fanon further warns that the revolutionaries should not ‘place their future’ in ‘the hands of a living god’ (1963: 94). So Fanon cautions that revolutionaries must be wary to not entrust their fate to the political elite and must ensure that there is a clear plan and vision for what happens after the colonial power is removed.

However, this is difficult in a place like Algeria which has languished under the colonial rule for such a long time. The challenge for political leaders in this context is to transform ‘the mass of the country people [who] have never ceased to think of the problem of their liberation except in terms of violence’, to people who think and care about the construction of a new political reality (Fanon, 1963: 127). Even prior to any decolonisation, Fanon notes that ‘“a legitimate desire for revenge” cannot sustain a war of liberation’ (1963: 139). Fanon then states that ‘the task of bringing the people to maturity will be made easier by the thoroughness of the organization and by the high intellectual level of its leaders’, this organisation and level of intellect must be strong enough to endure over time, and is inevitably required to increase and peak once the revolutionaries retain control of their state (1963: 146-147). Put simply, violence without some form of coordinated plan and control which organises the revolutionaries is bound to lead to further violence and bloodlust. An unplanned revolution will also fail to achieve the restorative and cathartic potential that violence can have for colonial subjects as they get lost in a merciless slaughter with no clear focus on achieving a self-determining independence. There must be a balancing act between the people not entrusting their fate blindly to one sole charismatic leader, and also the leadership of the revolution ensuring that the people are behind the political project of creating a new state.

If the leaders are successful in maintaining control of their reclaimed state, capacity building becomes their next task. Fanon states that ‘[a] government which calls itself a national government ought to take responsibility for the totality of the nation’ and that this must inevitably include women, young people and those who live at the margins of society (1963: 201-202). In this sense the people should be recruited into a new form of ‘fighting unit’ devoted to the ‘defense of national and social liberties’ (Fanon, 1963: 202). In short, violence without a succeeding government which ‘ought first to give back their dignity to all citizens’ will quickly return to a cycle of violence as people become marginalised again (Fanon, 1963: 205). Thus violence without good organisation and commitment to build a strong national community will be destructive. Cathartic violence can only ever be used as a means to the end of a free and peaceful society.

Creating a new cultural identity after usurping a colonial power is incredibly difficult. Fanon notes that after a prolonged period of colonisation ‘there comes about a veritable emaciation of the stock of national culture’ (1963: 238). After years of living under a colonial rule which seeks to negate the identity of the colonial subject it also becomes difficult for newly emancipated colonial subjects to reclaim the identity that they have wanted to restore. Fanon notes that ‘[g]oing back to your own people means to become a dirty wog, to go native as much as you can, and to cut off those wings that before you had allowed to grow’ (1963: 221). The wings that Fanon refers to are the ways that a colonial subject learns in order to survive under colonial rule. A colonised person must alter their behaviour under colonial rule to ensure that they can live in peace without excessive repression from the colonisers. For the colonial subject, it is difficult to give up these particular ways which became crucial to their survival. Fanon succinctly sums up the consequence of a failure to construct a positive national identity by saying that ‘there will be serious psycho-affective injuries and the result will be individuals without an anchor, without a horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless [sic]’ (1963: 218). Whether a strong new national identity is constructed or not, there will be psychological trauma as the former colonial subjects attempt to reforge a positive identity for themselves after living in a state of fear and repression for so long.

Thus, for Fanon, revolutionary violence is the only way that colonial rule can be removed. In his work, he outlines some of the ways that revolutions succeed and fail. However, for this violence to succeed, it relies upon a whole community being mobilised behind a common purpose. The violence cannot be gratuitous, and it should be a popular and participatory movement based around restoring dignity in humanity. He also acknowledges the difficulties that colonialism and violence present. There is a physical and mental toll to violence, and it is also a difficult process to restore a positive identity after it has been denigrated for so long.

Josh Pallas is a Research Assistant in Politics and International Studies at the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts University of Wollongong. NSW, Australia.

This article was originally published at Critical Legal Thinking.

Selected bibliography

Fanon, F. 1952, Black Skin, White Masks, Markmann, C.L. (trans.), Grove Press, Chippenham, UK
Fanon, F. 1959, A Dying Colonialism, Chevalier, H. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA
Fanon, F. 1963, The Wretched of the Earth, Farrington, C. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA
Fanon, F. 1964, Toward the African Revolution, Chevalier, H. (trans.), Grove Press, New York, USA

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