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“Discourse on Colonialism” is widely considered to be one of the most significant and urgently written essays of the mid-twentieth century. It has been characterized as a “declaration of war” on the European intellectual tradition, and it is one of the founding texts of the postcolonial movement in academic criticism, having inspired such critics as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Derek Gregory.

“Discourse on Colonialism” is written in a poetic, confrontational style directed at what Cesaire calls the “bourgeois” European intellectual tradition, particularly European humanism. In this way, his argument resembles that of Frankfurt School philosophers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who argued that humanist optimism about rationality, science, and technological advancement was misguided.

Cesaire opens the essay with an extended comparison between colonialism and the Holocaust. He makes the startling claim that genocide has always been the norm rather than the exception for Europe. He asserts that Hitler differed in the eyes of the European intellectual tradition because he committed genocide on white Europeans. In other words, Hitler practiced colonial procedures that had up until that point been used exclusively to subjugate non-white populations like Arabs, Africans, and Indians. In this way, Cesaire stresses the racist underpinnings of colonialism, arguing that the relationship of colonizer and colonized is really the relationship of black and white.

Cesaire argues that colonialism barbarizes the colonist, inverting the pious rhetoric of colonialism, which held that colonialism “civilized” its colonies. This attitude is summed up in this famous quote, which arrives a quarter of the way through the essay:

No one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.

Simply put, colonialism dehumanizes both the colonizer and colonized, turning all Europeans into enablers at best and murderers at worst.

To Cesaire, European humanism serves to obscure the brutality at the heart of European conquest and to enable ongoing abuses. It is important to recognize that Cesaire is not arguing against the humanist ideals of individual agency and equality. Rather, he sees the humanist tradition to be compromised and insincere, a pernicious attempt to cloak ongoing oppression in misleading humane rhetoric. In other words, he believes that humanism’s chief crime is a failure to live up to the values it preaches.

A Marxist, Cesaire believes that capitalism will always result in genocide if carried to its proper conclusion and that colonialism served to turn its colonies into an oppressed proletariat class. He later goes on to encourage the colonies to look to the Soviet Union for freedom and protection.


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In what has been described as a “shocking upset,” Aimé Césaire, a Communist Party member, was elected to the municipal council of Fort-de-France shortly after the close of World War II and was chosen by the members of the council to be the mayor of the city. This made him a member of the French Prèmiere Assemblée National Constitutante, the body responsible for the formation of the Fourth Republic. As a deputy in the assembly, he was able to combine his solid educational background in literature and history with the immediate experience of parliamentary debate and deliberation and to hear all of the arguments that were made by French politicians for the continuation of the foreign empire that France had maintained for several centuries.

Although he was never a dogmatic Communist and broke with the party after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Césaire was interested in Marxist thought and felt that the tide of history was running against all of the old colonial arrangements. The revolutionary activities of the Viet Minh in Indo-China had already made it clear that armed resistance to a colonial government would not be easy to suppress, and French colonies along the Mediterranean coast, particularly Algeria, had begun to demand changes in their governmental arrangements. Césaire’s visit to Haiti in 1944 also contributed to his conviction that political independence and cultural autonomy for a colonial state was a real possibility. On the other hand, when the government of the United States, at the insistence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, backed away from a promise made at the Geneva Conference of 1954 to support free elections in French Indo-China, Césaire felt that the United States might be moving into a position of control just as the old colonial powers were beginning to loosen the grip they had on territories in the Third World. Césaire knew and admired the work of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and recognized aspects of the same racist attitudes he had heard in the French Assembly in the bigotry that American writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay described in their works.

Civilization Destroyed

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Césaire begins his indictment of colonialism with a series of defining statements pointing to a serious flaw in Western civilization. Asserting that a civilization unwilling to recognize its problems, incapable of solving them when they are impossible to avoid, and then duplicitous in attempting to camouflage them is “decadent” and “dying,” Césaire declares that “two centuries of bourgeois rule” have led to a situation that is “morally, spiritually indefensible.” To support this judgment, he refutes the claim commonly made by representatives of colonial powers that their regimes are intended to be philanthropic enterprises or evangelical missions and shows that these regimes are mercantile endeavors designed to extend the economic structure of their own societies. Contact between civilizations that have followed different paths of development are crucial in sustaining healthy growth through a juxtaposition of varying perspectives because “a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies,” but throughout history, Césaire claims, not “a single human value” has been the result of colonial expeditions.

At the crux of his critique of colonialism is the effect the process has on the colonizing country. Césaire interlaces his commentary with examples of atrocities committed by colonial regimes, assuming that the evidence he cites is irrefutable, but in enumerating the ways in which these atrocities “decivilize the colonizer,” brutalizing and degrading the humane traditions of Western thought, he is advancing a position that was previously hardly mentioned. By gradual degrees, the colonizing process leads back to the inhabitants of European powers, resulting eventually in an acquiescence in barbarism, culminating in the rise of the Nazis. Césaire connects colonizing efforts in lands far from Europe, their consequences ignored by European citizens, to the emergence of Adolf Hitler, who attempted to colonize all of Europe itself. He supports this by quoting extensively from spokespersons for official government positions who explained their country’s foreign policies in racist language that Césaire labels “howling savagery,” likening these people to the Nazi propagandists whose genocidal programs were defended on supposedly scientific grounds. Césaire’s strongest criticism here is for the so-called humanists who did not speak out and resist the hatemongers. His conclusion is that “a civilization that justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization.”

Although Césaire is utilizing a mode of reasoned discourse to advance his thesis, he is better known as a Surrealist poet, and he uses poetic language to dramatize his argument. The directly personal voice of a witness emerges as he decries the brutalization he has observed. “I see force, brutality, cruelty, sadism,” he declares, “I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.” The righteousness of his anger is evident in this mode as he attempts to undercut the quasi-scientific pseudo-objectivity of the apologists.

A student of African civilizations at a time when most Europeans were taught that the term was an oxymoron, Césaire introduces the idea that such significant advances in human thought as the invention of arithmetical calculation and astronomical systems by people living in North Africa, and such sophisticated examples of artistic expression as the bronzes of Benin and the sculpture of the Shango (in what is now known as Nigeria) are endeavors comparable to or beyond what was accomplished in Europe to that point in time. Summarizing, he concludes the first half of his discourse by exclaiming, “The idea of the barbaric Negro is a European invention.”

A Call to Action

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The second part of the discourse is a call to action. Césaire, basing his economic analysis on a Marxist construct common to the French intellectuals (including Jean-Paul Sartre) who were his contemporaries, sees colonialism as a part of a capitalist social order that by its nature excludes most people from the rewards of their labor. Assuming that his audience shares his basic assumptions, he directs his words to the attentive “comrade” who is ready to challenge the “enemies” of a genuinely civilized society.

Continuing in the poetic mode he finds comfortable, Césaire identifies these “enemies” in a colorful catalogue of invectives, excoriating “venomous journalists, goitrous academician . . . the hoodwinkers, the hoaxers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs” among others, supporters of “plundering capitalism” who he insists are “answerable for the violence of revolutionary action.” Balancing solid scholarship with exhilarating bursts of vivid language, Césaire continues his citation of prominent sociologists and academicians whose theories about the Bantu need for dependence, or the Madagascan rejection of personal responsibility are justification for the “Occidental obligation” to these people. Lacing his remarks with a withering sarcasm, Césaire applauds the efforts of these men to keep under control the more vicious methods of colonialist administrators who are “less subtle and more brutal,” but ruefully observes that those who resort to force to compel obedience have become less interested in appeals to world opinion and that Hitler is the culmination of the colonialist program. This leads him back to his initial position that modern European civilization has been seriously compromised and corrupted by two centuries of colonialism.

Descent into Darkness

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Recapitulating, Césaire restates his fundamental position that colonialism “cannot but bring about the ruin of Europe,” and then moves toward an affirmative conclusion by counterposing the work of ethnographers (who respect the cultures they examine) with theoreticians of imperialism (whose preconceptions about the cultures they describe results in racist dismissal). Deftly selecting passages that effectively illustrate the biases of the defenders of colonialism, Césaire sees them as proof of his contention that “the West has never been further from being able to live a true humanism,” and warns that the United States may pose the greatest threat to a restoration of humane values as “American high finance” replaces European soldiers to “raid every colony in the world.”

In a sense, Césaire is using the United States as a symbol of the mechanization of the modern world in accordance with its ascendance as a superpower after World War II. His hope is that Europe (by which he means the West) will become what he calls “the awakener of countries” in the spirit of the great achievements of the Enlightenment that formed the basis for his own classical education. If not, he foresees a descent into “the pall of mortal darkness” for European civilization and maintains that the only way that Europe can redeem itself is through revolution—an idea that he does not discuss in detail but which was a part of his continuing commitment to a Marxist view of history that persisted even after he rejected the dogma of the Communist Party.

The Legacy of a Pioneer

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Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism was a groundbreaking venture into previously unmentionable territory, introducing an issue that was not regarded as appropriate for consideration by the Western powers before World War II. It was a sensitive subject immediately following the war because of fears of Soviet expansion into a power vacuum, the unease felt by countries such as France and Great Britain, which had been devastated by the war, and by countries such as Germany and Japan, which had temporarily lost any influence they might have had in global politics. The principles of democracy that had theoretically guaranteed the autonomy of all people were not always actually applied in terms of international politics as the Cold War made the West cautious about radical changes in governmental arrangement. Nonetheless, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Great Britain and France to justify a continuataion of their colonial empires, and the end of British rule in India set a precedent for change.

Colonialism had been under attack prior to Césaire’s essay, but many of the more persuasive critics were dismissed as Communist sympathizers, a charge made easier by what was often a Marxist foundation (or parallel) to their critique. Césaire’s essay was so singular in its style that it attracted immediate attention, although some who agreed with the thrust of his attack were unsettled by the vituperative nature of his language and imagery, and there are sections in which discourse verges on diatribe. While his accusations are far less controversial decades later, it is the vivid and gripping nature of his mode of expression that still compels attention, indicating that a philosophical inquiry may be written in a form not usually associated with the tradition.

Césaire was particularly a pioneer in his emphasis on the value of ancient African civilizations, an expression of the Afrocentric position that became both popular and controversial in the late twentieth century, and his accusation that “bourgeois Europe . . . extirpated the root of diversity’” anticipates the multicultural concerns that have become a major component of sociopolitical thinking. While his warning about U.S. domination is somewhat alarmist, his comment about factories in the former colonial countries making products for foreign corporations is an accurate forecast of the practice of many Western manufacturers, and his ruminations about the effect of colonialism on the colonizers have been borne out by the intermixing of people from the colonies into European countries, especially France and Great Britain where the contributions made by citizens born elsewhere but now integrated into society have given the European nations a new strength and vitality, as Césaire hoped they would.


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Additional Reading

Arnold, A. James. Introduction to Césaire’s Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, by Aimé Césaire. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Provides a succinct introduction to Aimé Césaire’s life and work. Offers critical observations that supplement and extend many of the readings in Arnold’s important Modernism and Negritude.

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This work is certainly the definitive study of Césaire’s poetry and its relationship to both negritude and modernism. Highly readable and elegantly written.

Davies, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A generally chronological examination of the evolution of Césaire’s poetic and intellectual development and its connection to his aesthetics and politics.

Frutkin, Susan. Aimé Césaire: Black Between Worlds. Coral Gables, Fla.: Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, 1973. A short but clearly written document on Césaire’s career. Frutkin covers the biographical details, both actual and intellectual, in a thoroughly convincing manner. While pointing out Césaire’s undeniable contribution to various African American movements, she places him accurately between the two worlds of his French heritage and his black identity.

Kennedy, Ellen Conroy, ed. The Negritude Poets. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An excellent collection of translations of French poetry written by black writers from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean area. Kennedy’s preface to Césaire’s work serves as an informative introduction to his work, his career, and his literary significance. Although purists may wince, her abridgment and summary of Return to My Native Land might make Césaire’s difficult work more accessible to the beginner.