Fanon, on the Utility of Violence

Estimated reading time: 5 min

In his seminal essay Concerning Violence, Fanon dissects the colonial world, mapping the structures that create and preserve it. He considers the internalisation of these structures by the colonised, how liberation must be conceived of and effected, and what the resulting de-colonised world will look like. 

But what is the place of violence in this process? How should the colonised use it and what does their use of it tell us? This essay will explore Fanon’s ideas as presented in his essay Concerning Violence about the use of violence in decolonisation, why it must be used, and the consequences of not using it

The central thesis of Concerning Violence is that liberation requires the oppressed to usurp the coloniser’s monopoly on violence and use it to effect their freedom. When writing about Fanon’s advocacy for violence, many commentators begin their writing by reassuring the reader that Fanon is not advocating gratuitous violence. Their desperate efforts to save him from being reduced to a “terrorist” and his philosophy being reduced to “extremism” makes it seem as if they hadn’t read the essay at all. If they had, they surely would not so blatantly employ the same tactics of reduction Fanon accuses the colonisers of, thinking that the colonised don’t know what they are doing. 

Fanon was advocating violence. No ifs, no buts, no caveats. Fanon was advocating terror, and terror by definition is the type of violence that is most unpredictable, most seemingly gratuitous, most colonial. Yet, commentators seek to wrap Fanon’s theories in layers of justification, namely that Fanon justifies violence only in the colonial context and only in pursuit of decolonisation. 

Refugees from the rural areas following the eruption of Mt Pelee on the island of Martinique (1902)

These commentators fail to realise that this recourse to justification, legitimisation, and reason are the banes of the decolonising spirit. There was no reason, legitimacy or justice in the violence that effected colonisation. Thus, Fanon doesn’t seek to find any in the violence that he insists must lead the way to decolonisation: ‘le colonialisme n’est pas une machine à penser, n’est pas un corps doué de raison. Il est la violence à l’état de nature et ne peut s’incliner que devant une plus grande violence.’ 

Such writers also fail to realise that by denying Fanon the right to inhabit this position, they are doing what he abhorred the most: subjecting his ideas to a test of white palatability that Black physicality and conduct are subjected to in the colonial world. It doesn’t matter that the ideas are uncomfortable; they are only uncomfortable to those with colonising tendencies; they are supposed to be uncomfortable to those with colonising tendencies. 

Placing Fanon’s views in such intellectual tension mirrors the muscular tension of the colonised masses that Fanon depicts in horrifying detail. Fanon’s taking of this position, the absolute, unequivocal right to violence, is a defiance, a resistance in itself, a revolution in thought and semantics – the colonised have to become the violence that created them. And Fanon, a revolutionary, must in the rousing of his side, be like the colonialist writers on the other side, in full possession of all rhetoric and ideology – to limit him is to colonise him.  

Fanon’s logic is quite simple – the colonial world is, by definition, a violent world. It was created by violence and it is violence ‘qui a présidé à l’arrangement du monde colonial’. Therefore, everything that happens within it is an act of violence. You cannot speak of a violent act in the colonial world – the whole consciousness, the only consciousness, is violence. 

Colonisation is the act of convincing the colonised people that violence is somehow a third-party agent, a tool that is identifiable and capable of delimiting. It is not. As one cannot turn off time in any consciousness – no matter how we may sub-divide it and name its units, we cannot step out of it to observe the world, or even fathom of a world without it – this is the same with violence in the colonial world. It is the timekeeper ‘qui a rythmé inlassablement la destruction’; it brings the system into being, creating the colonised and the coloniser. As when you speak of life, you are really speaking of the passage of time; when you talk of colonialism, you are simply talking of violence.

…le colonialisme n’est pas une machine à penser, n’est pas un corps doué de raison. Il est la violence à l’état de nature et ne peut s’incliner que devant une plus grande violence

The first indication we have of Fanon’s belief in the pervasiveness of violence is his characterisation of all relationships between the colonised and the coloniser as an ‘exploitation’. This has the effect not of positioning violence in the colonial world but of positioning the colonial world in violence. Violence established, it is simply a matter of allocation. It is as if by explaining the ubiquity of violence, Fanon wishes to show there is no point in explaining the ubiquity of violence. Who, being made familiar with colonisation, would deny that it is a violent enterprise? In a story about the sun, one does not waste time discussing whether it is hot. In the same way, in an assessment of colonialism, one needs not waste time debating whether it is a violent enterprise.

In building his arguments, Fanon does not limit his consideration of violence to the colonial sphere, as some commentators have suggested. Instead, he places his discussion within the universal premise that anyone claiming a conviction to bring about a specific end cannot simultaneously limit the means they are willing to take to achieve it. This is a truism. One cannot have conviction and limits. He says that success is only possible ‘si on jette dans la balance tous les moyens’ and commit to ‘violence absolue’. If there is a limit to what they will do, then the people do not have conviction; they merely have a desire. For Fanon, decolonisation begins only when the people are convicted, and recourse to violence is the only indicator of that conviction.

L’homme colonisé se libère dans et par la violence…[a]u niveau des individus, la violence désintoxique. Elle débarrasse le colonisé de son complexe d’infériorité

Fanon sees the assumption of violence by the colonised masses as a return to their humanity. It is as if the colonised have been in a slumber, and their conviction to take up arms is evidence of their re-awakening. For him, the whole situation presents as a self-fulfilling prophecy – once the masses are awake, they will take up arms; in taking up arms, the masses awake.

He further shows his belief in the consequentiality of violence to decolonisation when he posits that ‘dans les régions colonisées où une véritable lutte de libération a été menée, où le sang du peuple a coulé’, the colonial structures will be truly dismantled, but when decolonisation occurs in places ‘qui n’ont pas été suffisament secouées par la lutte de libération’, the structures will outlive the physical presence of the colonisers. Essentially, violence liberates the psyche, not just the political organs of the state. Even if one could secure the state institutions without violence, one should perhaps still use it in order to cleanse the land of the colonial spirit: ‘l’homme colonisé se libère dans et par la violence…[a]u niveau des individus, la violence désintoxique. Elle débarrasse le colonisé de son complexe d’infériorité’.

Thus, violence is the ultimate act of decolonisation as it is simultaneously the first and last frontier. It was the tool used first to establish exploitation. Thus, it is the tool that the colonised must wrestle from the hands of the colonisers to use to dismantle it.

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