Colonialism made us feel backward. It was always Europe that was advanced and enlightened, and it was always the East that was backward and wretched. Rather than honestly say that they had come to plunder, the colonial rulers said that they had come to school the East – it needed to be civilized. Every European colonizer used the phrase – the French called it mission civilisatrice, the Portuguese called it missão civilizadora and the English called it liberalism.
It took an immense effort of political will in the colonies to craft powerful movements against the colonizer. Different cultures of rule and resistance marked the battlefields, with some engaged in armed struggle while others were able to build resistance through non-violent mass action. But what united all these movements was the deep desire for freedom – for a break from the experience of backwardness.
The deep desire for freedom amongst the masses came in a register that appeared narrow. In his brilliant book – The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon wrote that the people ‘take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: how can we obtain the land, and bread to eat?’ The masses make a concrete demand for dignity through their call for land and for food – this is their ‘obstinate point of view’, writes Fanon.
Such a concrete form of dignity had to be denied to the masses. Such a demand would spell socialism. Any movement that took that position in the 1950s and 1960s had to be cut down. They were fought from Cape Verde to Malaysia – crushed with the full force of colonial violence. Fifty years ago, the fighters from around the Third World gathered in Cuba to inaugurate the Tricontinental. They wanted to break the wall built around their aspirations. None of their movements – with the exception of Cuba – would remain intact. Between CIA coups and financial terrorism, their dreams began to die. What was allowed was ‘flag independence’ – freedom from direct colonial rule, but what was not allowed was full independence. Backwardness had to remain intact.
Fanon considers the problem of backwardness as it re-emerges after independence. The masses’ victory does not come with the sensation of a new beginning. They have thrown out the colonizers, but they now find that ‘they have been robbed of all these things’ that modernity had promised them – running water, surely, but also freedom of political action. Two or three years after independence, Fanon writes, the people begin to feel that ‘it wasn’t worth while’ to fight the colonizers, and ‘that nothing could really change’. Fanon sees this resentment. It marks his text. ‘The enlightened observer takes note’, writes Fanon, ‘of the existence of a kind of burnt-down house after the fire has been put out, which still threatens to burst into flames again’.
Independence from colonial rule opened a new continent for the darker nations – but it was not enough. It did not give them freedom to craft their own social and economic agenda. Tentacles controlled from the capitals of capitalism suffocated their options. Coups and corruption dampened the enthusiasm to create a new world. It was enough to reduce oneself to a subcontractor for the former – now distantly located – colonizer. Old colonial terms – such as comprador, which the Portuguese used in China – defined the subordinated bourgeoisie of the new nations. Their degeneration was marked by their subservience.