Colonialism as ‘violence in its natural state’ – Essay
* This essay was written for the subject ‘Global Criminology’. Full bibliographical details are at the end of this document.
Franz Fanon was a fearless critic of colonialism and a key figure in Algeria’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule. He condemned colonialism in the most bitter terms and advocated violence in its most extreme form to confront this ‘ plague’ (Fanon 1967). Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, has been acclaimed as his most accomplished work and has been described as the “bible of decolonisation”, because of its radical impact on, and eventual success of the anti-colonial struggle (Fowale 2008). Nearly half a century after his death, Franz Fanon’s thesis on violence still remains an object of heated debate (Fowale 2008).
This paper will discuss colonialism and examine in what sense Franz Fanon describes colonialism as ‘violence in its natural state’. This paper agrees with Fanon’s thesis that colonialism is ‘violence in its natural state’ and contends that colonialism is only a tool which has been used by the dominant group in society to ensure its sovereignty and continuity, and there are examples of such tools both in the past and in the present.
2 Violence and Colonialism
‘Violence’ by its very nature is a socially constructed term which reflects and depends upon ones political outlook. The definition of violence is a function of one’s ideological or ethical biases (Jinadu 1986, p.44). What one may classify as violence another may classify as force. The distinguishing feature separating violence from ‘force’ is that violence is used to describe illegitimate, illegal, arbitrary, unpredictable and aggressive actions whereas ‘force’ is used in most societies to describe actions of government agencies enforcing the law. Force is defined as actions that are legitimate, regulated, reactive and defensive in nature.
Like ‘violence’, colonialism is also a term which reflects upon ones political outlook. Colonialism is a term used to describe a society where the dominant group in that society is foreign to the majority of that society. It is often used in the context of non-European society where the dominant group is European (Fanon 1967, p.30). Supporters of colonial rule and colonialist expansion policies argue that it has been, and is, an evangelising mission whose aim is to ‘civilize’ the ‘natives’ (Fanon 1967, p.32).
On the other hand, those who are critical of colonialism, like Fanon, see it as the complete subjugation of a racial, cultural, ethnic, religious or other group defined according to certain shared characteristics (Fanon 1967, p.32). Fanon argues that colonialism, which at its heart assumes the superiority of the colonialists, is ‘not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties’ (Fanon 1967, p.48). He further argues that colonialism represents ‘violence in its natural state and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence’ (Fanon 1967, p.48).
Naturally, colonialists will disagree with Fanon’s argument instead arguing that what they do when subjugating the colonised is ‘force’ and not violence (Fanon 1967, p.29).
Although Fanon does not explicitly define violence in his works, his focus on a number of social and political phenomena provides a clear view of what he sees as constituting violence in the colonial situation. Furthermore, unlike those before and after him who advocated ‘civil disobedience’ like Gandhi as a way to overcome the violence of colonialism (Barth 2000) – Fanon advocated resistance or counter-violence of greater proportions as a cure for the violence exercised by colonialism. As he sees it the colonial state is a ‘structure’ that must be altered ‘from the bottom up’ and the only way to achieve this is by the use of greater violence as ‘colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat’ (Fanon 1967, p.42).
Fanon also argues that violence perpetrated by the ‘oppressed’ – the colonised should be seen in the context of violence by the ‘settler’ – the coloniser (Fanon 1967, p.28).
Violence in its natural state as described by Fanon is the putting into practice the claim to be first where the objective is supremacy of one group over another or others (Fanon 1967, p.27). Colonialism with its many facets is the complete subjugation of a racial, cultural, ethnic, and religious or other group defined according to certain shared characteristics and has as its objective the supremacy of the colonisers over the colonised.
The violence which Fanon refers to is actual physical violence as well as other levels of harm through epistemic violence. Epistemic violence is the kind of violence that is perpetrated on the knowledge and language(s) of the victim(Hussain 2007). Colonialism involves the practice of epistemic violence over the colonised.
3 Colonialism as physical violence
The use of physical violence has often preceded and was used in the establishment as well as maintenance of colonial rule. (Fanon 1967, p.27) Throughout colonial history physical violence has been perpetrated by the coloniser to “pacify” the colonised and to force them to accept the laws and order of the coloniser. History is filled with events where the coloniser has waged physical violence on the colonised. This physical violence sometimes in the form of war and in others through other acts of physical violence on the colonised has had the aim of forcing the acceptance of the order of the coloniser.
Fanon argues that as colonial rule and its institutions and social roles rests on the basis provided by physical violence – so too must the response to it (Fanon 1967, p.48).
4 Colonialism as structural violence
Colonialism by its very nature involves the exploitation and subjection of people to serve the interests of the coloniser. Structural violence refers to the social injustice that one sees in colonised societies through the economic exploitation of the colonised (Fanon 1967, p.31). In colonial societies one often sees the native section with its abject economic situation and the coloniser section with its surplus economic situation.
Fanon has identified race as the basis and emphasis of this structural violence in colonised societies. In a colonial society, unlike other societies, access to rewards and sanctions within that society is predicated on race. The classification of an individual into a particular racial category determines the penalties and favours that individual may receive in the colonial society(Jinadu 1986, p.30).
It is often the case in colonial societies that the colonised resort to physical violence in order to redress or remove the conditions imposed upon them through structural violence(Jinadu 1986, p.47). In non-colonised societies, the objective of the state is to reconcile the differences that can and does occur within its subjects. However, in the colonial state, the objective of the state is to break up the colonised further so that they may not threaten the coloniser. The colonisers do not feel responsible or accountable to the colonised in the issue of redressing or equalising the structural divisions that exists between themselves and the colonized (Jinadu 1986, p.51). This is because the colonised are perceived as savages – undeserving or ill-equipped to be afforded liberty from the coloniser (Mill 1859).
5 Colonialism as psychological violence
Colonialism is not only political and economic exploitation of the colonised – it is also the psychological and cultural exploitation of the colonised. Fanon, in justifying his thesis that colonialism is ‘violence in its natural state’ points to the psychological violence exercised on the colonised. Psychological violence is the injury or harm done to the human psyche of the colonised to decrease their sense of self-worth and integrity (Fanon 1967, p.44).
Psychological violence takes on many forms such as brainwashing, indoctrination and threats. These are as Galtung has said ‘violence that works on the soul’ (Gultang 1969, p.169). In colonialism, the coloniser both consciously and subconsciously creates colonised individuals who perceive values and institutions of their coloniser as being superior to their values. Fanon describes the pain experienced by these colonised cultures and societies who are forced to see the world through ‘western eyes’, including the lauding of western values as universal values (Fanon 1967, p.33).
To illustrate his point, let us use one of his earlier works in which he argues that these individuals become strangers to themselves as they attempt to mimic the language and social mannerisms of the coloniser. He classifies these people as those who wear “white masks” and says that colonialism produces individuals who are in ‘a constant effort to run away from his or own individuality, to annihilate his own presence (Fanon 1952, p.60).
Furthermore, the colonial state, to ensure its continuity also uses epistemic violence on the colonised. Language is a medium through which one expresses their culture. It allows one to function in society as well as regulate an individual’s interaction with other persons in that society.. In colonialism, the coloniser imposes their language on the colonised (Fanon 1967, p.28). Fanon argues that adopting and using the language of the coloniser has important consequences for the colonised individuals. As language is an integral part of culture, a colonised individual by adopting not only assumes the colonisers culture but also rejects, or becomes alienated by their own culture. In the colonial context the imposition of the colonisers’ language on the colonised is a form of psychological violence. It is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other (Fanon 1952, p.17).
6 Discussion: Violence in its natural state
While different forms of violence are exercised under colonialism they are in no way unique. Any state, to ensure its continuity employs the types of violence used in colonialism. Violence as has been described previously is a socially constructed term – and depending on which side of the equation the individual is in they will react to it differently. It is not the colonialist state that is inherently violent it is state and states as a whole that are violent (Barth 2000).
On the question of whether colonialism is ‘violence in its natural state’ as Fanon has argued the answer is – yes but with a caveat- it is not unique. Even Fanon’s argument against and solution to colonialism is to replace it with one with greater violence (Fanon 1967, p.48). As Fanon has identified, even the act of decolonising is violence – only on the reverse. He gives the examples of Senegalese patriots who when referring to the maneuvers of their president, Senghor: ‘We have demanded that the higher posts should be given to Africans; and now Senghor is Africanizing the Europeans’ (Fanon 1967, p.36). Fanon says decolonising is simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men (Fanon 1967, p.27).
Franz Fanon’s argument could very well explain the current and ongoing violence in Africa and other decolonized countries. The violence is not a mark of change but a mark of continuity (Fowale 2008). As Walter Rodney writes,, colonialism completely destroyed what remained of the political, economic and socio-cultural achievements of Africa and left in its place ‘nothing of compensatory value’ (Rodney 1973; Fowale 2008). This colonial havoc was the springboard of Fanon´s philosophy of violence (Fowale 2008).
Ultimately, colonialism is just an example of ‘violence in its natural state’ – albeit more pronounced than others. Colonialism in the end was a tool used by Europeans to dominate the non-European societies which they wished to exploit – politically, economically and psychologically. There have been through history and even today and into the future various tools whereby dominant groups in human society have enacted their wills on the weak through different forms of violence. Indeed, in the era of globalization, Fanon´s insights are useful to
help us make sense of today´s political and economic tensions (Fowale 2008).
Barth, C. (2000, 20 May) ‘ Violence and the state’, Promethea, accessed 30 April 2009 from
Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Masks, translated into English by Charles L. Markmann, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, pp. 15-65.
Fanon, F. (1967) The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, pp. 2748.
Fowale, T. (2008, 7 June) ‘Frantz Fanon´s thesis of violence: What relevance for modern Africa?’ American Chronicle,
Accessed 5 May 2009 from
Galtung, J. (1969) ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3, USA pp. 167-191.
Hussain, A. (2007, 9 February) ‘The Language Movement of 1952: Power relations and language relations’, New Age, accessed 20 April 2009 from
Jinadu, A. (1986) Fanon: in search of the African revolution, London, Taylor & Francis, ppp.30-60.
Mill, J.S. (1859) On Liberty. Reprinted in J. Gray (1991) (Ed.) John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 5-19.
Rodney, W. (1973) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, reprint, 1983;, transcribed: by Joaquin Arriola, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London and Tanzanian Publishing House, Dar-Es-Salaam,