Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Which path to liberation?

Non Violence or armed uprising? The question about which approach is the best path to liberation from oppression remains ever-pertinent in social movements struggles; and the two paths are often intertwined. The thoughts of Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire shed some light on the debate. One question that is often asked, especially in contested liberation environments, is whether liberation should be pursued through armed struggle or nonviolent means. Africa and the rest of the global south are at a crossroads as to which is best suited in their environments. Armed struggle is widely condemned by the majority who prefer peace through dialogue and nonviolent measures. But not everyone! I want to take us through a critical look at two ‘authorities’ who have looked at the subject, namely Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire. I will explore the question by exploring Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I will look at their different perspectives on the nature of oppression and the path to liberation. Even though both writers make strong arguments, I will argue in this paper that Fanon is more convincing and practical. This paper will conclude with a brief discussion of Julius Nyerere’s choice of nonviolent liberation as documented by Sutherland and Meyer (2000) in Guns and Gandhi in Africa. 


According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the term ‘liberation’ means ‘a movement seeking equal rights and status for a group’.[1] This definition provides a starting place for considering how Fanon and Freire understood a process toward liberation. While Freire’s focus was on liberation in relation to class oppression, Fanon was writing in the face of colonial domination. The violence of colonizers, such as the British, was profound. It encompassed direct killing and massacres of people, death from impoverishment, forced displacement of people from their homelands, theft of land, physical assault, manipulation and trickery of local leaders, and imposition of foreign legal and political systems, education, religion and language. By the 1930s, there had been numerous traumatic experiences in the colonies of British military brutality: the massacre that followed the Indian mutiny of 1857, the Morant Bay, Jamaica massacre of 1865, killings of Kikuyus in Kenya from the early 1900s (Miles and Brown 2003, Elkins 2005), etc. Faced with such a colonizer, colonial subjects were confronted with the problem of how to effectively liberate themselves. 


In his 1963 work, Wretched of the Earth, Fanon views colonial society as a society that is profoundly violent. He states that colonial violence produces a ‘compartmentalised world […] a world divided in two’ (Fanon 2004, p. 3). By this he refers to the manner in which the colonisers have created a boundary between themselves and the colonised. On one side of this boundary the colonised are incriminated, deemed to be evil and to lack ethics. The colonised is regarded as ‘a corrosive element, destroying everything within his reach, a corrupting element […] an incurable instrument of blind forces’ (Fanon 2004, p. 6). Indeed, the coloniser regards the colonised as an animal. In order to keep such a colonised in check, the coloniser has established brutal systems of policing and security, which routinely use brute force against the colonised. Another aspect of the compartmentalisation of the colonial society is the vast difference in living conditions between the colonised and the coloniser. Fanon describes the colonised as living in deplorable conditions: crowded, dirty and disordered. The colonised are typically hungry, sick, and have shorter lives. By contrast, the colonizer’s world is affluent, comfortable and inhabited by white foreigners (Fanon 2004). The colonisers dominate this world in a manner that destroys the indigenous culture, livelihoods and social fabric. Given the brutality of such a system of absolute compartmentalisation, the colonised sees no possibility of any meeting ground with the colonised.

Fanon (1963) thus argues that to radically transform such a violent system requires violent action: ‘national liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people of commonwealth, whatever name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonisation is always a violent event’ (Fanon 2004, p. 1). In other words, termination of colonialism requires purging and a complete social reversal. Because colonialism is so psychologically traumatic for the colonised, challenging it cannot be a strictly rational process. As he states, ‘It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonised that their world is fundamentally different,’ (Fanon 2004, p. 6). It is for this reason that dialogue with the coloniser is not seen as a possible avenue toward decolonisation. Rather, ‘the exploited realise that their liberation implies using every means available, and force is the first,’[3] (Fanon 2004, p. 23). Through using such means, Fanon argues that the colonised will thus recover their humanity and dignity.

However, Fanon also recognises the power of colonial systems of mental and cultural indoctrination, or what I call ‘normalising processes’. Normalising processes refer to the strategies used by the coloniser to create a state of passivity among the colonised. Religion, especially Christianity, is identified in his writing as one of the ways adopted by the coloniser to make the colonised people perceive their traditional ways of life and learning as inferior, to look at the culture of the coloniser as superior, and hence to accept the colonial status quo.[4] Christian proselyting and education were employed as the normalising factors for the coloniser. In Fanon’s analysis, Christian proselyting violence is felt through its encroachment on indigenous languages, values, beliefs, sense of belonging, local traditions and ways of doing things (Fanon 2004). This is why the anti-colonial struggle entails complete reversals. 

Fanon devotes considerable space to discussing the particular features and roles of the ‘colonised intellectual’. This figure plays an ambiguous role. A violent armed struggle against colonialism is not in the interests of this figure, as he has much to lose, both materially and politically. The colonised intellectual is established in the world of the coloniser, but when the colonized peasantry takes up a violent struggle against the colonial power, the ‘colonised intellectual’ is torn between two choices. He/she can remain aligned with the colonial/Western bourgeoisie and operate as a broker between the clashing forces; however, in doing so, he/she risks being regarded as a traitor. He may thus appear or pretend to align himself with the colonised masses, but this is an opportunistic façade. Fanon notes that ‘the attitude of the colonised intellectual sometimes takes on an aspect of a cult or religion. But under close analysis it clearly reflects he is only too aware that he is running the risk of severing the last remaining ties with his people,’ (Fanon 2004, p. 155). In a few cases, the colonised intellectual may spend enough time among the ordinary people as they engage in the anti-colonial struggle to come to genuinely identify with them. Fanon notes that in these cases, the colonised intellectual becomes disillusioned with western philosophies and even changes the way he speaks: ‘“Brother”, “sister”, “comrade” are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie because in their thinking my brother is my wallet and my comrade, my scheming,’ (Fanon 2004, p. 11) 

To summarise and conclude this section, Fanon asserts that because colonialism is founded on violence and operates through violence, a non-violent struggle – ‘the attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done’ - will never destroy such power. Moreover, the use of violence, in Fanon’s view, restores the dignity of the subjugated peoples and operates as a ‘cleansing force’. He states: ‘It rids the colonised of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence […] Violence hoists the people up to the level of the leader,’ (Fanon 2004, p. 51) 


Freire approaches liberation from a completely different angle. First, writing in 1970, his social context differs; he is not writing about liberation from colonial oppression, but rather about liberation and empowerment in the context of the class inequality that characterized Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Given that Freire’s writing was inspired by the experience of doing literacy work among impoverished Brazilian agricultural workers, it seems surprising that Freire pays little attention to the underlying economic structure in his discussion of liberatory education. In my view, Freire is a reformist – that is, a liberal thinker who believes that change that benefits oppressed people can occur through education and discourse.

At the very beginning of his book, Freire states that, ‘Concern for humanisation leads at once to the recognition of dehumanisation, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality,’ (Freire 2010, p. 43). After graphically describing the state of the oppressed, he warns the oppressed to never become oppressors; furthermore, he says:

‘They [the oppressed] will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it […] the oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would acquire them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest,’ (Freire 2010). 

In this quotation, Freire, like Fanon above, seems to be suggesting that freedom is something to be seized by the oppressed; however, he goes on to call attention to responsibility in the way freedom has to be exercised. In taking hold of their freedom, Freire sees that ‘the authenticity’ of the oppressed depends fundamentally on their freedom, but is also closely related to how they will deal with the oppressor. He makes this clear when he says, ‘World and human beings do not exist apart from each other, they exist in constant interaction’[5] (Freire 2010, 48, 50). In other words, Freire suggests that freedom from oppression should by no means suggest the end of the struggle but the beginning of a scenario where the opposing parties - one oppressed, but now in a position of authority, and the other former oppressor in a position which is not well defined - would now try to come to terms with each other responsibly. In Freire’s view, the formerly-oppressed, now in the position of authority, knows more of the former oppressor than the latter knows of the former; in other words, the oppressed sees the world from two positions simultaneously.

Interestingly enough, Freire identifies another solution that in my understanding builds on the ‘responsibility’ he explicitly talked about as an ethic that should be adopted by the oppressed after seizing power; in order to achieve real freedom, the newly-empowered requires ‘revolutionary wisdom’, (Freire 2010, p. 60). Here he talks about how the oppressor lived in the belief that he knew all; the oppressed, on the other hand, ‘feels inferior to the boss because the boss seems to be the only one who knows things and is able to run things,’ (Freire 2010, p. 63). This led to the manipulation, mistreatment and appropriation of the resources and the services of the oppressed by the oppressor. The newly-liberated should not reproduce these patterns but should seek a transformed relationship with those who were formerly the oppressors.

Freire identifies ‘banking education’ as a central form of violence against the colonised (Freire 2010). In this method of education, people in the colony are regarded as empty bank accounts which are just waiting for the account holders to come and make their monthly deposits. The people’s cultures, the indigenous episteme and the knowledge accumulated through lived-experience are disregarded. Freire critiques this type of education in which the oppressor treats these adults in a way that suggests they are ‘empty drums’ to be filled with water. I could attest to this as I witnessed this growing up in the Northern part of Tanzania in the early 1980s. Relatives who were going through adult education were treated like empty vessels. In this regard, they had to learn things and act in the manner prescribed by the proselyting missionaries at the expense of one’s own traditions and values. This is what comprises colonialism, colonial monoculture and violence against the oppressed. Freire clearly states that ‘banking education’ dehumanises the oppressed, disrespects their knowledge, prohibits partnership, is anaesthetic by nature, mythicizes reality and is akin to cultural invasion (Freire 2010). 

The solution Freire offers to this form of domination and violence is found in what he calls a ‘problem-posing’ approach. Problem-posing education responds to ‘the essence of consciousness – intentionality – rejects communiques and embodies communication […] liberating education consists in acts of recognition, not transferrals of information […] problem-posing education sets itself the task of demythologising [and] regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality’ (Freire 2010, pp. 79, 83 – 84). In a nutshell, Freire sees dialogue as the way to liberation. This dialogic process takes the two parties to commit to working together ‘towards humanisation – the people’s historical vocation’, which he insists ‘cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity,’ (Freire 2010, p. 85). In Freire’s view, dialogue is a liberating force.


Both Fanon and Freire are describing social contexts characterized by inequality, violence and oppression. Both see colonial violence as characterized by mental indoctrination and assimilation. Both believe that liberation does not come as a gift on a silver platter; rather it must be seized by the oppressed. However, there are several significant differences in how they would pursue liberation.

Fanon, in his analysis of the colonial scene, deals more with the colonised peasantry whose condition appears to be more deplorable and who have gone through a more dehumanising period under colonial domination than those portrayed by Freire. In Fanon’s view therefore, it is imperative that the colonised living under deplorable conditions take up armed struggle to seize their redemption from the oppressive coloniser. Freire, on the other hand, does not explain convincingly why the oppressor would enter into dialogue with the oppressed. By comparison with Fanon, Freire’s analysis of the oppressive/colonial power is naïve, as the oppressive and domineering power-wielding authorities never cede their position voluntarily unless it serves their interest.


I want to return here to the question of why some forms of liberation from colonisation occurred through nonviolent struggle. Fanon (2004) in his work sees the possible withdrawal from power by the coloniser as a way to eradicate the possibility of armed struggle and before ‘the irreparable is done, before any bloodshed or regrettable act is committed,’ (Fanon 2004, pp. 23, 39). Freire, on his part, describes it as a sense of benevolence ‘which is [like] nourished death, despair and poverty,’ (Fanon 2004; Freire 2010). By seeming to voluntarily bring the colonial presence to an end and cede power to indigenous authorities, the coloniser wants to maintain an appearance of benevolence and obscure the violence that has been and will continue to be perpetuated by the colonial (and neo-colonial) system. In this sense, seemingly nonviolent ‘decolonisation’ can also be another form of violence.

Colonialism and physical domination of the colonies can never be said to be a thing of the past in a number of African countries and other countries in the global south. Countries that attempted liberation by way of nonviolence have by and large fallen into neocolonial domination through multilateral and bilateral trade agreements – or have had another phase of liberatory activity through armed struggle to seize power. 

Looking at my own country, Tanzania, today, I would say that liberation at all cost is costly either way. Nyerere said that, ‘We wanted to be independent because we are people’ and yet he also says that ‘the younger generation, they feel that we have let them down and they have a right to think that way. In a sense it is true, maybe we could have resisted more. But we succumbed, we thought we had won, and we did not continue the liberation of our people because we thought we had arrived’ (Sutherland and Mayer 2000). 

Liberation therefore needs more than one path. In my view, neither violence nor nonviolence or dialogic path could stand alone. I concur with Fanon in stating that in the face of such dehumanising acts of domination, [only] violence – armed struggle can grant the oppressed their rightful position in their own society.

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