Violence : Richard Bernstein

I would like to bring in the third thinker who is relevant to the question of the justification of violence, Frantz Fanon.15 Fanon is frequently cited as the thinker who “glorifies” the role of violence. Indeed, one of the provocations for Arendt’s essay, “On Violence,” was to respond to this popular reading of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s book was being read through the eyes of Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote its preface. Arendt reacted strongly to what she took to be Sartre’s irresponsible glorification of violence—especially his claim, “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone . . . there remain a dead man and a free man.”16

I believe that to read Fanon as “glorifying” violence is to seriously misread him. Indeed I have argued that The Wretched of the Earth should be read as a critique of violence.17 And by this I mean that Fanon is primarily concerned with providing a depth analysis and critique of the structure and dynamics of colonial violence—how sophisticated and effective it is in all its strategies to dehumanize the indigenous population. Fanon presents a powerful argument for the view that the only way to overthrow colonial violence in Africa and especially Algeria is by armed struggle.

Indeed, Fanon himself is critical of unrestrained spontaneous violence because it can destroy a revolutionary movement. He tells us that anti-racist racism, hatred, and resentment do not provide an agenda for a war of liberation. Furthermore, there is a type of violent brutality, which brings down a revolutionary movement within weeks if it is not immediately contained. The Wretched of the Earth should be read as a sustained argument that is intended to justify the need for armed struggle to overthrow deeply entrenched colonial violence. Read in this way then, the differences between Arendt and Fanon are not as dramatic and extreme as they initially seem. Arendt concedes—as does Benjamin, Butler, and Critchley—that there are exceptional circumstances in which violence can be justified. And whether we agree with Fanon or not, he is arguing that colonialism in Africa presents one of those exceptional circumstances where violence is justified.

Once we achieve a deep structural understanding of how colonial violence works, then it becomes clear that it can be eliminated by armed struggle and not by “peaceful” negotiation. Indeed we can go further in bringing Arendt and Fanon closer together. Arendt introduces a sharp distinction between liberty and freedom. Liberty for her is always liberty from—liberty from poverty, liberty from oppressive rulers. Freedom, what she calls public tangible freedom, arises only when human beings in their plurality act and speak together—only when they create the public spaces where there can be an exchange and test of opinions. In her book On Revolution, where she celebrates the American Revolution (as opposed to the French Revolution), she focuses her attention primarily on the debates and public discussions that led to the writing of and the ratification of the Constitution and to the creation by the Founding Fathers of a new order (novus ordo saeculorum)—and not on the actual killing that took place in the Revolutionary War.18 In short, using her distinction she claims that the war of liberation (what we normally call the Revolutionary War) precedes the true revolution—the creation of a new order in which public freedom is to flourish.

I believe that the distinction that Arendt draws between liberty and public freedom is not only one of her most important distinctions, but also highly relevant to the contemporary world. Over and over again we have to learn the bitter lesson that the overthrow of oppressive rulers is not sufficient to bring about the flourishing of real democracy and public freedom.

15. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

16. Hannah Arendt, On Violence, 13.

17. See Richard J. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters, Chapter 4.

18. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

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