Rousseau and Fanon

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (Helena Rosenblatt’s translation), he describes the original state of nature (before civilization) and the origins of civilization, property, and government that create inequality. Near the end, he writes about absolutism and its demise:

Here all individuals become equals again because they are nothing; and subjects no longer having any law except the will of the master, nor the master any other rule except his passions, the notions of good and the principles of justice vanish once again. Here everything is brought back to the sole law of the stronger, and consequently to a new state of nature different from the one with which we began, in that the one was the state of nature in its purity, and this last one is the fruit of of an excess of corruption. Besides, there is so little difference between these two states, and the contract of government is so completely dissolved by despotism, that the despot is master only as long as he is the strongest, and as soon as he can be driven out, he cannot protest against violence. The uprising that ends by strangling or dethroning a sultan is as lawful an act as those by which he disposed, the day before, of the lives and goods of his subjects. Force alone maintained him, force alone overthrows him. Everything thus occurs according to the natural order; and whatever the outcome of these short and frequent revolutions may be,  no one can complain of another’s injustice, but only of his own imprudence or his misfortune. (93, emphasis mine)

Frantz Fanon, born in French Martinique but who became famous in writing about the Algerian revolution against France, expressed a similar idea about overthrowing colonialism in the mid-20th century. I couldn’t find my book that has the excerpt I first read, but I believe that this is the passage (from The Wretched of the Earth) that I remembered:

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler–was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the native are old acquaintances. In fact, the settler is right when he speaks of knowing “them” well. For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say, his property, to the colonial system.

Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men. But this creation owes nothing of its legitimacy to any supernatural power; the “thing” which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.

In decolonization, there is therefore the need of a complete calling in question of the colonial situation. If we wish to describe it precisely, we might find it in the wellknown words: “The last shall be first and the first last.” Decolonization is the putting into practice of this sentence. That is why, if we try to describe it, all decolonization is successful.

The naked truth of decolonization 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 believed that violence was good and right in this context, and even redemptive. One statement attributed to Fanon is “Violence is man re-creating himself,” which seems to be from The Wretched of the Earth as well. You can see how he applies Jesus’ statement about the last being first (which in my understanding refers to the last judgement, and therefore Fanon is following the modern pattern of immanentizing the eschaton), and he says also in a later part from that link that “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force.” It’s interesting how Fanon takes the opposite perspective of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. For Fanon, violence was redemptive; for Gandhi and King, as Taylor Branch points out, suffering was.

I don’t know if Fanon was influenced by Rousseau, but it wouldn’t be surprising given Rousseau’s influence and Fanon’s life in the France and the French empire.


4 thoughts on “Rousseau and Fanon

  1. “immanentizing the eschaton” is a fun phrase. 🙂 I think you’re right.

    Rousseau seems reasonable insofar as he is only considering despotic rule and despotic revolution. But does he then generalize that case to escape moral absolutism? Despite the complexity of morality, classifying all parties as equally evil is a deeply flawed and dangerous solution.

    Fanon seems similarly simplistic in his analysis. Violence can surely be moral, but framing it as a means of “re-creating ourselves” (instead of a more apt version like “un-creating others”) is specious and worrying, even in the context of decolonization.

    This brings to mind Milton Friedman on Slavery and Colonization (transcript).

    Friedman has a more nuanced view on colonialism, even as he acknowledges associated evils. He separates it from capitalism by pointing out that the free market is not zero sum (both sides gain). And he claims that mother countries as a whole actually lose more than they gain economically from colonialism. He also places Russia in the framework of colonialism which seems valid but rarely considered.

  2. I think that Rousseau may have been trying to escape moral absolutism. In The Social Contract he says that whatever is lawful (according to the general will of the community) is just, and so perhaps nature’s law provided the justification of a violent uprising. And you’re right that an a priori assignment of moral equivalence (rather than moral equivalence reached by a careful reckoning) is dangerous.

    And I wonder to what extent Fanon’s glorification of violence might lead to something like the culture of death embraced by Hamas or Hezbollah, which have both been influenced by Third Worldism (Fanon’s milieu) as well as, of course, radical Islam.

    Friedman was good, as usual. He was right about Russian colonialism. Part of the reason that people like the questioner in the video could overlook that, I think, is that the USSR presented itself as an anti-imperialist force with Lenin’s “Imperialism the Highest Form of Capitalism” or the Zhdanov Doctrine ( The questioner’s line of thought followed that school of thought. This also influenced Ho Chi Minh (

    I think that Friedman may have overlooked and understated that colonial economies tended to be rigged to favor the home country’s industries: cash crops were encouraged, manufacturing was discouraged, and India’s cloth industry was devastated by cheap British textile products (who knows if that might have happened anyway, though).

  3. Ah, the anti-imperialist, democratic force formerly known as the USSR! Zhdanov’s use of words reminds me of the naming of countries like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

    Thanks for putting the questioner’s perspective in context. His question certainly didn’t seem organic, but it’s neat you could identify where he got it.

    I imagine that Friedman would agree that their free market had unfree parts, but do you think he was wrong that “colonialism has always cost the mother country more than it ever got in any direct or indirect economic benefit”?

    It is a remarkable claim. Unfortunately, I’m not up to analyzing Jacob Viner’s studies which Friedman cites. But Friedman’s overall framework makes sense to me, namely that the free market benefits both parties, causing the flow of wealth to be more bidirectional rather than merely exploitative.

    While Friedman would be against the illiberal, protectionist policies that you mention, he’d probably view naturally cheaper textiles as a net good (though obviously initially devastating to the local industry).

    As an aside, by a similar logic, it strikes me that China’s artificially devaluing their own currency would actually harm China and benefit other nations. I don’t understand why the US would oppose it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Friedman address that specifically.

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