Discourse on Colonialism

by Aimé Césaire

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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

Aimé Césaire begins his essay by assailing one of the prevailing myths of colonization, namely that it was a "civilizing" mission on the part of European nations. Césaire argues on the contrary that "between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance," and that the colonization process has "not a single human value." He goes on to argue that colonization actually brutalizes the colonizer by causing them to accept the acts of brutality that are deemed necessary to rule over their subjects. Provocatively, he compares the advocates of colonization, particularly in France, to Adolf Hitler, quoting from one of his speeches and those of colonialists to demonstrate that colonizers operated on assumptions that were not very different than those of the Nazi dictator. Colonization, he concludes, dehumanizes the colonizers.

Having made this point, he continues to address the effects of colonization on the colonized themselves. In the pursuit of profit and power, he points out that colonizers have destroyed civilizations, not spread them. They have nearly exterminated Native Americans, imposed oppressive regimes upon people around the world, stamped out indigenous cultures, and taken lands and natural resources. "Europe," he says, "is responsible...for the highest heap of corpses in human history." He characterizes the trappings of civilization as an ideology intended to "mystify" colonial peoples in the name of capitalist exploitation. He claims that pre-contact cultures around the world were actually "anti-capitalist," and that they were destroyed in order to foist capitalist society upon them.

Césaire proceeds to criticize the intellectual, ideological, and even literary minds who have justified colonization upon the grounds of civilization. He claims, essentially, that they are little more than apologists for capitalism, the overarching ideology that motivates colonization. In fact, much of the work done in studying peoples around the world by anthropologists, historians, and social scientists is really conducted for the purpose of more thoroughly subjugating them. He is especially biting in his rejection of Roger Callois, a linguist and sociologist whose theorizing Césaire condemned as essentially racist in its assumptions.

Césaire concludes by expressing his belief that a global revolution is coming. This revolution will not only overthrow the colonizers, but the bourgeois capitalism that created colonization itself:

It is a matter of the Revolution—the one which, until such time as there is a classless society, will substitute for the narrow tyranny of a dehumanized bourgeoisie the preponderance of the only class that still has a universal mission, because it suffers in its flesh from all the wrongs of history, from all the universal wrongs: the proletariat.

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