*Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

The enterprise of making a nation is fraught with violence.  People have to be not merely cajoled but browbeaten into submission to become proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  Overt violence may not always play the primary role in producing the homogenous subject, but social phenomena such as schooling cannot be viewed merely as innocuous enterprises designed to ‘educate’ subjects of the state.  One of the most widely cited works to have put forward this argument with elegance and scholarly rigor is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, where one learns, with much surprise, that even in the Third Republic “French was a foreign language for half the citizens.”  The making of France entailed not only the modernization of the rural countryside but creating, often with violence, proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  The making of the United States offers another narrative of the role of violence in the production of the nation-state, with the extermination of native Americans long before and much after the ‘Revolutionary War’ constituting the most vital link in the long chain of violence that marked the emergence of the United States.

Postcolonial thought, attentive as always to the politics of nation-making and nationalism’s complicity with colonialism, bestowed considerable attention on the various phenomena that can be accumulated under the rubric of violence; however, it had almost no time to spare for a pragmatic, ethical, or even philosophical consideration of nonviolence.  The violence of the nation-state may have always been present to the mind of postcolonial theorists, but generally this was reduced to the violence of the colonizer.  One thinks, of course, of Fanon, Cesaire, Memmi, and many others in this respect.  In those works that have underscored the complicity of nationalist and imperialist thought, a principal motif in the work (say) of Ranajit Guha, the violence of indigenous elites also came under critical scrutiny.  [See, for example, Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, or his programmatic note on subaltern studies in Volume I.]  It is characteristic of most social thought in the West that it has been riveted on violence – here, postcolonial thought barely diverged from orthodox social science, mainstream social thought, or the general drift of humanist thinking.  Nonviolence is barely present in intellectual discussions.  We see here history’s continuing enchantment with ‘events’; nonviolence creates little or no noise, it merely is, it only fills the space in the background.

One of the many genuine insights at which Gandhi arrived was the recognition that the practitioners, theorists, and ardent believers in nonviolence in Europe and America had become entirely marginal to dominant intellectual traditions of the West.  The Tolstoy who turned to anarchism and nonviolence was seen as having betrayed the finest humanist traditions that he had once embodied; Thoreau was dismissed as a freak; and Edward Carpenter was reduced to obscurity.  That the supreme novelist of 19th century Europe, feted and celebrated not only in aristocratic and learned circles but in the much wider and emerging public sphere, should have turned to philosophical anarchism, renouncing his own works and embracing a political view of Christianity that put him in the path of confrontation with the church, is something that passed the comprehension of Tolstoy’s contemporaries.  Gandhi was similarly inclined to view Christianity as a firm repudiation of Christ’s teachings on nonviolent resistance, though what role Tolstoy had in shaping Gandhi’s conception of Christianity remains uncertain.

The point cannot be reinforced enough:  nonviolence has never had any salience in Western thought, and postcolonial thought has in this respect scarcely deviated from the intellectual traditions of the West.  Once we leave aside Indian scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy, for whom Gandhi perforce has had an inescapable presence, we find that postcolonialism in the Western academy never had the slightest truck with the histories and practices of nonviolence.  The fetish for violence manifested itself in a sustained interest in Fanon among postcolonial theorists; but Gandhi has long seemed, shall we say, unsexy in the extreme.  The case of Edward Said is instructive:  though he had gotten in the habit of furnishing lists of anti-colonial thinkers and texts to his readers, Gandhi remained singularly uninteresting to him.  It is informative that in a voluminous collection of interviews with Edward Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan and published in 2004, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. appears twice:  but where King is remembered around the world chiefly and justly as one of the chief architects of the civil rights movement, the preeminent prophetic voice of an aggrieved black America, Said mentions him both times only (and I should say without any just cause) as an unequivocal supporter of Zionism.  Many have pointed to the fact that the oppression of the colonizers was much more visible to Said than the resistance to colonial rule; but, even within the canvas of resistance, the idea of nonviolent resistance, and its histories, was not even remotely on Said’s horizon.  Nonviolence has been a gaping hole in postcolonial thought, and this alone points us to the irrepressible and uncomfortable truth of the deep structuring of violence in the entire edifice of modern Western thought.

See also related previous posts:

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)


4 thoughts on “*Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

  1. ‘How the West was Won – A Violent Imposition’; an epitaph for exterminated, or severely decimated indigenous populations, natural resources and the idea of ‘peace without purpose’, that is, peace that is not the aftermath of violent reformation of ‘inferior’ beliefs and ‘unproductive’ paradigms of existence. Non-violence, it appears, has no meaningful status except as the background for ‘meaningful change’, and meaning is determined by the aggressor.


  2. Total War against Humanity has been on-going even before 1914. Now we have Big Brother, as in Orwell, vs Wikileaks, and predictably, with a Fatwa against Assange much more sudden and open, if not less vicious than that against me and others trying to build something beautiful (a better, healthier future for our kids).

    FYI, I fled the Holocaust of Queensland HELLth in 1997-98, but of course was already an Untermensch under MacDonald’s Mercenary Medicine, since 1975, and had been deemed as such when I was conscripted (see Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948) in 1967, to terrorise the people of Vietnam. But they still terrorise me and my family and friends to this day.

    Plus ca change. Just WMD now instead of the biggest club.

    With Love only,

    Maarten de Vries

    PS. I was there in Byron when that pollie expressed delight at the slogan, “Kill for Peace” to counter Gandhi’s Ahimsa etc. and your erudite commonsense.


    • Hello Maarten,
      I quite agree that the concept of “total war” dates to before 1914. Concentrations camps were invented in South
      Africa to discipline, chastise and terrorize the Boers. General Sherman in the American Civil War waged campaigns
      of what today would be recognized as ‘total war’, virtually inventing, for modern times, the view that there was
      no such thing as an innocent civilian population. One is tempted to say, as you suggest, that the more things change,
      the more they remain the same. But one can equally argue that we have added new terrors to the older ones.
      The repertoire of terror never diminishes. Best, Vinay


  3. ‘Nonviolence has been a gaping hole in postcolonial thought, and this alone points us to the irrepressible and uncomfortable truth of the deep structuring of violence in the entire edifice of modern Western thought.’

    Is violence ‘deep structured’ in modern Western thought? Surely, its historical trajectory has been to get rid of Thymotic violence and replace it by a legalistic agon. Why? The latter is more effective, more efficient, less contestable.
    Here, at least in theory, violence is marginalized- though the effect is to increase its ‘shock and awe’ factor- and quickly replaced by some ‘rational’ legalistic civil process.
    There is a story of King James 1 coming down to London for his coronation. He stops off at a market town where a thief is arrested. The King wishes to create a good impression amongst his future subjects by stringing up the fellow. But, the English are shocked that the thief has not received ‘due process’ so the King’s kindly intentions misfire.
    Non violent sanctions such as ‘the Boycott’ can be just as punitive and devastating, though it took the genius of a Gandhi to realize that the most powerful weapon in the armory of passive resistance is sheer all blighting stupidity and pi-jaw.
    An effective defense against rape (or so I’m told) is to vomit and defecate all over oneself. Post Colonial Theory guards its virtue in a similar manner and thus could be subsumed under the rubric of non-violent resistance especially as it doesn’t actually resist anything.


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