The first sentence of The Wretched of the Earth reads as follows: “National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event” (1).
The colonizer is constantly inflicting violence upon the colonized, Fanon argued — not only is colonization itself an act of violence, but for the colonizer to maintain his power over natives, he must constantly assert it through violent acts — not only physical, but through the infliction of the neuroses Fanon described in Black Skin, White Masks, which Fanon also considered an act of violence.
“Any colony tends to become one vast farmyard, one vast concentration camp where the only law is that of the knife,” Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth. “In a context of oppression like that of Algeria, for the colonized, living does not mean embodying a set of values, does not mean integrating oneself into the coherent, constructive development of a world. To live simply means not to die” (232).
Meanwhile, as the colonizer turns the colonized toward self-hatred, his forced poverty in a hardscrabble world where survival is success turns him against his fellows, who are oppressed like himself. “Exposed to daily incitement to murder resulting from famine, eviction from his room for unpaid rent, a mother’s withered breast, children who are nothing but skin and bone, the closure of a worksite and the jobless who hang around the foreman like crows, the colonized subject comes to see his fellow man as a relentless enemy,” Fanon writes (231).
“It is the violence of the colonizer that has created the colonized,” explains Alvaro Andrés Reyes in his paper, “Can’t Go Home Again.” “It is through their ‘bayonets’ and ‘cannon fire’ that they have destroyed the very the social fabric of native life, i.e. economy, lifestyle, and modes of dress. … If the colonists can say that the native is an animal it is because their violence has reduced him to an animal-like existence” (108).
Though Fanon has sometimes been criticized for romanticizing the peasantry, it is the peasant class he calls to action in the battle to end colonialism. In fact, he argues that peasants — the impoverished natives who have borne the brunt of the colonist’s heavy-handed control — are the only group that can truly create a new nation, because many of their “bourgeois counterparts” have managed to benefit from the colonial system through government stations or by being placed in positions of authority over their fellow natives. “Therefore, this peasantry has a total distaste for the compromises of the native cosmopolitans. Rather, for them, the struggle can never stop short of ‘taking back the land from the foreigners, a feat that they have always understood necessitates ‘armed revolt,’” Reyes explains (108).
Violence is not only a means of throwing off the colonist’s shackles: Fanon believed it is also a cure to many of the neuroses he describes in Black Skin, White Masks.
“At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence,” Fanon writes (Wretched of the Earth 51). Being one member of a powerful and life-changing force allows the individual to feel at last that he is not only master of his own fate, but powerful enough to improve the fate of his comrades through his contribution: the dedication of his life to the cause. He has seized the source of his illness and ripped it from society — he is cured, and healthy with the exhilaration of action.
Fanon further argued that there is evidence of the improved mental state of a colonized person in rebellion in the decline in crime once the revolution has begun: “It is common knowledge that significant social upheavals lessen the occurrence of misdemeanors and social disorders” (230). This, Fanon concluded, is because the colonized has redirected his feelings of anger and dissatisfaction into a single cohesive force: an anticolonial movement, wherein the colonizers are now openly incriminated as the source of all grievances, whose elimination coincides with the reparation of those grievances. Certainly, “life is an unending struggle,” but now the European colonist has been identified in the most black-and-white terms (a colonist’s tool) as the source of all strife (51).
However, Reyes warns, Fanon’s violence cannot be taken as an end in itself. Fanon does not argue that “unmediated violence” is a legitimate tool in any circumstance — even in any circumstance of racist oppression. Instead, he characterized violence as a weapon of the colonizer that must be turned against him, but ultimately abandoned when it comes time to form a new nation, built on the ideals and the culture of the native.
“Having cleared a path away from the pre-determined future imposed on the Black slave through colonization, Fanon is now ready to ask his readers to take ‘leave [of] Europe’ and instead turn toward the unforeseeable, which makes the production of the new possible,” Reyes writes (137).
Violence can only be seen as one step on the path to a new nation, Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings agree in their article, “On Politics and Violence: Arendt Contra Fanon.”
“The redemptive aspect of Fanon’s reading of violence is the possibility that violence may be educated. The violence of the colonized is a reactive violence, but it cannot be solely fed by resentment and anger. It must recognize itself as the source of a new world, a new order — it must become strategic and positively instrumental,” they state (96).
Manichaeism is one of the colonizer’s most violent weapons and Fanon wanted the colonized to use this weapon, too, and turn all that is white into an enemy. But this is only for a time. The ultimate goal for Fanon is to create a “new man” from the ashes of the old world’s destruction, and through the healing powers of violent uprising. The world of this new man, he argued, cannot be built in pure opposition to the white and European ideal, because in so doing it still defines itself by Europe.
“In other words,” Reyes writes, “for Fanon, Black consciousness is not the negative element in the face of Europe, but rather ‘a new beginning’ that in itself contains the capacity to face the ‘third space’ of the unforeseeable. ‘Black consciousness’ is thus for Fanon this capacity to turn toward the unforeseeable” (133).
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