Fanon and the use of violence

           Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a provocative discourse on decolonization, revolution, and national culture which takes a deliberately Marxist worldview. I found this work to be an incredibly interesting, yet discomforting read. The first part, “On Violence,” makes the case for widespread, albeit “justified” violence, to advance the cause of colonial liberation. As a result, Fanon asserts that armed rebellion is necessary to end the cycle of subjugation imposed by Europeans on colonized peoples for centuries, and serve as a form of catharsis for them. In light of the horrors of European imperialism it is hard to completely refute his point – bloodstained retribution would be wholly appropriate given Western crimes in the developing world. Nevertheless, I still find Fanon’s call to arms quite unsettling. Despite the fact that I have no direct experience with the anticolonial struggle and the marked marginalization that ensues, violence, in my view, should never be considered a legitimate answer to any society’s woes. The FLN, to which Fanon ascribes high praise, oversaw the deaths of tens of thousands during its war with France, only to set up a long-term dictatorship – in the end the violence in Algeria, while aptly displaying the anger of the colonized and showcasing the dark aspects of France’s outremer departments, did not necessarily ameliorate the country’s situation. Ironically, Algeria saw little change until the largely nonviolent protests in 2010, which eased many of the government’s restrictions on civil liberties. Of course, Fanon could not have known all of this when he was writing, but he must have been aware of contemporary nonviolent movements that pushed for liberation as well; especially that of India, where the INC successfully supplanted the British Raj and set up an officially socialist, enduring, multi-party democracy. Similar triumphs have also come about through the American Civil Rights Movement, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. For this reason, violence, even when seemingly justified, should always be held as the very last resort – for it has the tendency to make the oppressed as depraved as their oppressors.

Despite this, I think Fanon’s discussion of colonized people’s necessity to rediscover their lost cultures, and his strong words against nationalist and bourgeois movements to be very insightful and appropriate. In these later segments, he also seems to disprove some of his initial points on the use of violence – describing the failure of spontaneous revolts, and expressing disappointment for many anti-colonial rebellions that ended in dictatorships. For this reason, while he begins with a shocking treatise on the use of violence, Fanon seems to end with a more measured tone, emphasizing that the former colonies must find their own divergent paths from those of Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, one would think that in breaking from the horrors of their imperial past, these nascent nations might also want to leave the West’s penchant for bloodshed behind as well.

Nevertheless, perhaps this speaks to David Scott’s argument in “The Temporarily of Generations.” That due to our divergent experiences, being from different generations and the products of different historical legacies, it will be difficult to reconcile Fanon’s worldview with that of my own. Furthermore, it is important to ask whether or not the questions Fanon quarreled with in The Wretched of the Earth are still worth answering. Is his Utopian vision of anti-colonial struggle, and the means of achieving it still relevant after witnessing its aftermath in various Post-Colonial nation states? In the spirit of Scott maybe we should catalog Fanon’s discourse with other futures past as a means of better understanding history and its competing narratives without necessarily viewing them as viable pathways to creating stable, independent and peaceful societies.


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