Discourse on Colonialism

by Aimé Césaire

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“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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