The sheer brutality of colonialism

In my seminar on Politics and Literature of Postcolonial Africa, we have been discussing Aime Cesaire’s classic Discourse on Colonialism. For Cesaire (and several other radical Black intellectuals like W. E. B. DuBois), the emergence of fascism in Europe was not an anomaly, not an exceptional moment in European history.

Popular discussions, withing academia and without, encourage us to view the mass slaughter of millions of Jews under Nazi rule as an abnormality, an inexplicable deviation, in the onward march of European cultures and societies towards Progress, Reason and Enlightenment. So students are taught, very early on, to refer to “the Holocaust” in the singular, capitalizing the word to render it as a proper noun.

Cesaire argues, instead, that to view the emergence of Nazism in this light is to erase from historical memory the sheer brutality of colonial wars of conquest that have been the defining feature of European history in the modern era. In a brilliant passage (a favorite of mine), he demolishes the notion that European Nazism was an anomaly or deviation, and insists that we recognize the continuity, in cultural if not in political and economic terms, between European colonialism abroad and the Nazi atrocities at home.

I’ve been waiting a long time to quote this passage in full somewhere, and here’s my opportunity, finally. Cesaire writes:

First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a centre of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated”, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but sulrey, the continent proceeds toward savagery.

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.

People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind – it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.

The relevance of Cesaire today is not hard to understand. Think Abu Ghraib. Think Guantanamo. Think of the U.S. soldiers who have recently been accused of killing Afghan civilians “for sport.” Think of the manner in which a viciously racist campaign against Muslims and against Islam has led, in recent months, to mosques being vandalized and attacked, Muslims being physically assaulted, and Muslims as a group being blamed for the bombing of the World Trade Center.

In my seminar discussions, I often find that my students can accept all of this as true, as real, and applaud Cesaire’s polemical indictment of European imperialist culture, but balk at the political conclusions that this critique leads to. In particular, while they might learn to love Cesaire, they find the writings of Cesaire’s most famous student, Frantz Fanon, difficult to swallow, especially when they find him condoning, and indeed glorifying, violent, armed resistance to colonial rule.

One has to be reminded, time and again, of the utter savagery of imperialist domination and conquest. Absent this, it becomes difficult to comprehend the violence that resistance movements typically employ.

In this context, check out the latest blog post from ScarletGuju, a close friend and comrade of mine who is currently researching the Indian struggle for independence from British colonialism. If you ever had any doubts about the brutality of colonialism, take a look at this post, and the picture that accompanies it.

And then ask yourself what would you do if an occupying power brutalized your families, your friends, your neighbors in this manner, all for the crime of demanding the very liberty and progress that the occupiers held up as their “ideals.”