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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

The Tragedy of Decolonial Violence

Rebellion, and all the violence it entails, is a tragic act. In his essay The Rebel, Camus demonstrates that one who says ‘no’ and fights for himself is destined to die. In fighting for himself, he introduces a violence that ceases only with death. He will die either at the hands of his oppressor, or by becoming an oppressor in murdering his oppressor; his violence dictates this destiny. But is it truly the case that any man who rebels, who enacts violence, is destined to die? Can violence be a formative act, which only affirms oneself without implying destruction? At a surface level, Fanon seems to give an account of such a rebel. For him, the colonized subject, the man who rebels against the colonist, “emboldens” himself and forms “a nation already indivisible” in committing violence. But even the colonized subject, with his violence, is a tragic figure. Fanon’s colonized subject, too, is fated to die from the atmosphere of violence—to either die as an eternal rebel, in a constant war against colonialism, or to die in eternal subservience to his colonist. Either way, Fanon’s colonized subject is doomed by his mere situation.

Camus defines a rebel as “a man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.” The rebel says no and stands up for himself. On the “conviction that he ‘has the right to,’” he affirms that there is a limit, a limit resting on a principle.1 This principle is universal. Camus writes, “it is for the sake of everyone in the world that the slave asserts himself when...a common has infringed on something in him...which is common ground where all men—even the man who insults and oppresses him—have a natural community.” Any man possesses, within him, the transgressed limit. Any man would say no. The rebel is just in the place to do so. On behalf of all humanity, he refuses.

The act of rebellion, or rebelling, is done with an attitude of “All or Nothing.” Rebelling is “place[d] above everything else and proclaims it preferable to everything, even to life itself.”3 The rebel becomes constituted by rebelling and nothing more. He “wants to be ‘all’—to identify himself completely with this good of which he has suddenly become aware and by which he wants to be recognized...or ‘nothing’; in other words, to be completely destroyed by the force that dominates him.”3 He is willing to “accept death” for his act.3 In the desire to affirm himself, the rebel will use any means necessary. He will transgress the universal limit he set against the transgressor to make him stop; he will become another oppressor in the opposite direction. He will act against humanity by harming the other, perpetrating the wrong done to him. As Camus writes, “if [the rebel] retreats they must accept death; if they advance they must accept murder...Rebellion pleaded for the innocence of mankind and now it has hardened its heart against its own culpability.”

The rebel, for Camus, is a tragic figure. He has “only one way of reconciling himself with his act of murder if he allows himself to be led into performing it: to accept his own death and sacrifice. He kills and dies so that it shall be clear that murder is impossible.” In saying ‘no,’ the rebel introduces a violence that ceases only with death. He is doomed to die. He will either die at the hands of the oppressor, or posit a limit to the transgressor’s oppression. After positing the limit, he will do anything, even murder, to affirm his humanity. But rebelling, in this way, transgresses the very limit that the rebel used for rebelling. Thus, to affirm humanity and the limit he set, he must die too. The rebel will die to save humanity, or at least cry for its salvation; he is both a martyr and tragic figure. He, or someone else, must say ‘no’ to himself in order to stand behind saying ‘no’ to the transgressor. The rebel, for Camus, possesses tragedy—fated to death by the motion of violence.

An example of a tragic rebel is the colonized subject that Fanon describes. For Fanon, the colonized subject must rebel; he is fated to because of the structures of colonialism. Colonialism, structurally, is a “world divided in two,” for Fanon.9 The two worlds are the colonized and colonist sectors. The colonists have paved roads, stone and steel—it is “built to last.” The colonized live in “the shanty town,” in a “world with no space,” where the land itself feels transient.7 The colonized look upon the colonist sector with a “look of envy.” This envy feeds into a “state of rage,” a pot of libidinal energy kept just below boiling. The rage grows out of the colonist’s violence: the dehumanizing language of the colonists, the poverty imposed upon the colonized, the theft of land and bread. This violence continues during each day spent under colonial rule. Born into an atmosphere of violence, the colonized sublimate their rage, accumulating from violence and envy, into myths and dances. But eventually the energy will be directed against the source of tension: the colonists. “After years of unreality,” writes Fanon, “the colonized subject, machine gun at the ready, finally confronts the only force which challenges his very being: colonialism.” The colonized subject confronts the reality which causes his tension—he stops dancing, stops mythologizing and dances, and faces the colonist. Following the arc of history, he rebels. To this, Fanon writes:

The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and mode of dress, this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities.10


The colonized subject, for Fanon, will take history into their own hands—they will rebel with proportional violence; they will say ‘no.’

Rebellion says ‘no’ to the colonial order, latent with violence, and vows to destroy it. The colonized subjects, now rebels, desire not the “status of the colonist, but his place.” What is this place? The land of the colonist’s sector. How does he seek to attain this place? By “demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.” To fulfill their desires, the rebels seek to destroy the colonists and all the violence they employ, all the structures that keep the rebels impoverished and separate. They will destroy the colonist’s roads, the colonist’s people, the colonist’s values, and convert it all into their own land.

Destructive violence is creative. “This violence,” writes Fanon, “constitutes [the colonized subjects’] only work.” He goes on, writing “each individual represents a violent link in the great chain...Factions recognize each other and the future nation is already indivisible. The armed struggle mobilized the people, i.e., it pitches them in a single direction, from which there is no turning back.”14 The colonized subjects recognize their solidarity only through the act of violence, because it is their “only work,” or the only action in concert that they can take while colonized. All other action is impotent to the colonists, who, in their concrete buildings, care little for the cries of bread and land; these cries are not action because of their impotence. The rebels “recognize each other” in the motion of the direction of violence, their only possible direction. The recognition formed in the violent act births national consciousness, “already indivisible.” The “deployment of violence” is how the colonized subject “discovers reality and transforms it.” He recognizes reality and moves to transform it; in doing so, he discovers the reality of his national solidarity. Violence creates the nation.

Violence both creates national consciousness and posits the ‘yes’ limit of violence—that the colonist’s violence is too much for any human to bear. The colonist’s violence, though, can only be addressed by the one political action of the colonized, which is violence. They resist because of the violence of the colonized; they respond with a violence proportional to the violence received. In rebelling, the colonized strives to transgress the limit they created. Yet the colonized must respond with their decolonial violence, for this is what the colonial order fates. The colonized are born into an atmosphere of violence. They do not introduce it in their ‘no.’ Their ‘no,’ rather, responds to the atmosphere of violence with a simultaneously destructive and creative violence.

What does decolonial violence lead to? It strives to destroy the colonial political order by demolishing the colonist’s sector. The colonists eventually leave; they can withdraw from the hellish landscape of reciprocated violence and return to their mother countries. After violence eliminates the colonists, after the liberation struggle ends, decolonial violence continues unto different faces of the enemy. “Following national liberation they are urged to fight against poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment. The struggle, they say, goes on. The people realize that life is an unending struggle.” After expunging the colonists, the colonized are left with lingering problems, problems handed to them by the violence of the colonists. Hunger, poverty, illiteracy—all of these struggles remain from the colonists dividing the colonial world in two. Though their violence is “cleansing,” stripping them of their rage and envy, the colonized have more filth to sanitize than their selves. The colonial political order remains, though the colonists flee. Colonial structures, built to be eternal, leave their foundations, awaiting destruction. The colonized want nothing less than to demolish it all.

The task of demolition is immense. “The apotheosis of independence becomes the curse of independence,” writes Fanon. Once granted independence, the colonized must strive to purge the effects of colonial structures. Violence continues against a faceless enemy, one who cannot transgress. The colonized no longer fight the colonists; they fight colonialism. The colonized die in this fight—the fight against underdevelopment, corruption, poverty—a fight that descends unto them once the colonists depart. Nobody is there to help them. The nationalist leaders are “left with no other choice but to turn to their people and ask them to make a gigantic effort. These famished individuals are required to undergo a regime of austerity, these atrophied muscles are required to work out of all proportion.”17 Finding itself under, “new management,” the nation must “start over from scratch,” but their efforts “cannot be sustained for long at such an infernal pace.” The newly liberated nation is fighting a losing war following their rebellion.

The colonists have two options in facing this war. The first is that they can “give in to the terms of the former colonial power,” who “take advantage of their strategic position” and become an “economically dependent country.” Under these terms, the nation finds a new death. They admit, once more, to subservience, without the building tension of the everyday violence of colonialism. They remain colonial at a distance, like baby chicks who wait in their nest for their absent mother to periodically feed them. Limp, weak, and dependent, this nation grows impotent—too weak to grow on their own, yet too removed to build the tension to explode once more. They wait patiently for their death, chained to their colonists. The nation falls and the rebels die in oppression.

The other option is to continue the unsustainable fight against colonialism’s lasting effects, and call for the “crucial help of the European masses.” They retain their nationalistic fervor, asking for rehabilation and reparation for the violence done unto them for so vast a time span. Fanon demonstrates this option in writing his essay On Violence. He maintains the force of nationalistic libidinal energy in his writing. He declares “the colonists never ceases to be the enemy, the antagonist, in plain words public enemy number 1.” With regard to rebellion, he writes, “at the very moment when they discover their humanity, [the colonized subjects] begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory.” Fanon demonstrates the necessity of energy by means of his poetic, antagonizing, forceful language. But this language is present only in the first section of On Violence, the section describing the rebellion which thrusts the colonists out. In the next section, titled “On Violence in the International Context,” his tone shifts. He writes, “The Third World has no intention of organizing a vast hunger crusade against Europe. What it does expect from those who have kept it in slavery for centuries is to help it rehabilitate man, and ensure his triumph everywhere, once and for all.” The colonists are no longer “public enemy number 1” to whom sharp weapons are aimed. They are, rather, a group who can offer their “crucial help.” At this point, after the revolution that he describes, Fanon needs the sustenance of the colonists. He asks for it directly—but he asks for it following a forceful account of nationhood, implying that the nation, independent, is asking for aid, not dependence. But nothing beyond Fanon’s cries, impotent as the cries before the concrete building, impels the Europeans to give this aid. The essay ends with this call for help, not an account of action; the cries are not heard. Regardless of the option chosen by the nation, they are doomed in the war which follows rebellion. They will either die fighting and begging, as Fanon demonstrates, or grow impotent under a new, removed colonial rule, subject to oppression unto death.

Fanon’s colonized subject, as a rebel, is fatefully doomed. He is a tragic figure. For Fanon, he is destined to rebel. The conditions of colonial rule ensure this happens. His rebellion is an enactment of history; it is only a matter of time until he rebels, only a matter of time until the colonial rule falls. He builds up libidinal energy as he receives the constant violence of colonial rule. Eventually, he says ‘no more.’ He picks up his gun and commits the only action he can do. He enacts violence; the nation forms out of recognition in action; the nation enacts violence as one. The colonists eventually leave—they always can, for they have another country to return to, while the colonized do not. The colonized nation transgressed the limit in shooting, in the murder of the colonists until they departed. But they cannot kill themselves. Rebellion has not yet ceased. Though the colonists physically depart, their structures do not—colonialism leaves lasting struggles for the colonized nation, and brings them to a new war. Violent energy redirects towards these struggles, but the energy dwindles with the loss of colonial tension, and the struggles are too great for the colonized nation to conquer alone. The nation, in its “All or Nothing” against the colonists, is doomed to die in one of two ways. It either dies in the war against lasting colonialism—in famine and undevelopment, or it dies in losing their nationhood to a new, removed colonialism—economic dependence on the colonists. The colonized subjects perish at the structures of colonialism either way—either fighting against lasting colonialism, or in the yoke of economic dependence. Both the rebelling nation and the colonized subject are born out of rebellion. Both are perpetually drowning in violence. Both are destined to die in the hands of colonialism.

Camus defines a rebel as a man who says ‘no.’ Camus shows that, once the rebel has identified the universal limit to his oppression, he will die. His death comes from violence, violence born out of saying ‘no.’ He will either die at the hands of his oppressor, who continues to transgress the limit, or he will kill his oppressor, transgressing the universal limit that he set, and die because he transgressed that universal limit which he murdered for. Fanon’s colonized subject, an example of a rebel, demonstrates this fated death to be true. He is already immersed in the violence of colonialism. He must enact violence against the colonists. Colonialism is fated to its own demise, and the colonized subject must be the agent. The only way to end colonialism, which is the only action the colonized can take, is violence. In this violence the rebels find each other; they form a nation. The colonized must kill the colonists, driving them out, to end his oppression. But even after the murder, violence remains ingrained in the postcolonial situation. The liberated nation finds itself fighting against the famine and destroyed infrastructure left behind by colonialism. It either dies fighting this war, thereby falling to the oppressor’s hands while begging for his help, or it dies by becoming economically dependent on their former colonists, becoming subservient once more, losing nationalism in a distant colonialism. The rebels die under the yoke of colonialism regardless, never consummating their rebellion, never annihilating the enemy. Fanon’s rebel is a tragic figure—his violence, a tragic violence gifted to him, drags him to death. The rebels either remain rebels forever, constantly on the brink of death while crying for salvation, or live on, ending their rebellion and nationhood in a subservient oppression unto death.

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