Emancipatory Politics: A Critique
edited by Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah

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Further Theoretical Reflections on Emancipatory Politics

Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah

Until now, we have left out of this book one of the key terms for an emancipatory project: humanity. Whether it is the Enlightenment project or the Communist project of international solidarity, the creation of humanity out of the potential that exists in all conceptions of humanity for a universal, differentiated but mutually acknowledging humanity has been, and still is, a political project that may or may not require armed struggle. Imperialism, chattel slavery, colonial settlement and the racism that they engendered made this project urgent, realistic, and violent.

Franz Fanon (1961) is one theorist of liberation and human emancipation who took into close account the details of local culture and the violence of colonial occupation suffered and felt. Although his ideal was human liberation free of violence, for him this could only be realized locally and through violence. Writing at the height of the Algerian war for independence, Fanon laid bare the economic and psychological degradation of colonial bondage as a form of violence against which a counter-violence can, and must, be waged. This was, for Fanon, embodied and libidinal and could – when it recognized itself as the source of a new world – become a politics of liberation through which fighters learn by action. For those who valorised Fanon, such as Sartre (1961) who wrote the preface to his book, this violence becomes a crucial condition through which the ‘wretched of the earth’ could recreate themselves and become human. The question raised by the case studies in this book is whether politicisation can take place through such counter-violence and whether it can become a politics of liberation. But the crucial and inescapable truth Fanon drew attention to is the experiential and cultural condition of armed struggle and emancipatory politics. Let us elaborate this truth.

In her biography of Fanon who was her senior colleague, Alice Cherki (2006) establishes a number of crucial elements of his politics. First, his psychiatric work emphasised the alienation suffered by the mentally ill, which could only be overcome by a new ‘socio-therapeutic’ activity of mutual work and mutual respect between patients, staff and each other – a mini-politics of combating alienation in the hospital. Second, Fanon’s experience of racism in his Second World War service and in much of his medical and psychiatric education had done two things to him. It formed a long-standing and impassioned, uncompromising humanism, and the conclusion that the traditions of the colonised had been completely transformed, along with the so-called ‘civilisation’ of the colonisers by the politics of colonial oppression. A culture of racism, enforced by state powers, encapsulated and trapped the traditions of the colonised and the projective fantasies of both colonised and colonisers. The experience of this culture of racism is of course both somatic as well as psychic as is all illness mental and physical; but in this case it is the embodiment of violence on a cultural scale. Fanon set out on a politics of liberation to search for ‘paths out of the alienation and oppression of all humankind’ (2001: 77). In his work as a leading psychiatrist in the main mental hospital in Algeria between 1955 and 1957 he helped the newly formed National Liberation Front and its combatants, medically and psychiatrically, in sheltering them from the occupying French state and its torturers, and in his publications, before resigning and moving to Tunisia, to carry on open psychiatric, editorial and writing support of the liberation of encapsulated northern and sub-Saharan African peoples. He had been dismayed by the French Communist Party’s pro-Soviet stance in 1956 and its siding with the French Socialist colonial power in Algeria and later by the dictatorial stance of many of the military, as distinct from the political leaders, of the Algerian liberation movement. In short, Fanon’s position was beyond formulaic class struggle; it emphasised the battle against racism and for a democratic and participatory liberation through counter-violence, an armed struggle such as those discussed in this book.

One of the first to criticise Fanon’s conception of the necessity for counter-violence was Hannah Arendt (1969). Arendt mounted a political and philosophical critique based on her conception of armed force as instrumental for other ends, including ideological ends, but with the danger of becoming its own end. For Arendt, as for Fanon, the political use of violence is a means to end violence. However, the danger that Arendt draws attention to is that the means (violence) used to achieve this political goal (ending violence) becomes more often than not of greater relevance to the future than the intended goal; the means overwhelms the ends.

To Fight for Politics

In her earlier work, Arendt (1951) identified the forces of totalitarianism as a form of governance that eliminated the very possibility of political action. She therefore advocated a fight for politics. Forces of totalitarian regimes preventing political action could in principle generate a legitimate case for armed violence as defence. Arendt took her own experience, as a stateless and displaced person against fascism during and after the end of the Second World War, to compel us to look beyond nationalism and its states toward a politics of humanisation, of recognizing humanity as a capacity for action. What Heidegger called ‘mass-man’ was for her the result of a new kind of state power, which dehumanised, that is to say depoliticised people through the atomisation of individuals into masses manipulable by demagogues and the organisations of commerce.

For Arendt this kind of rule, totalitarianism, is characterised by three elements. One, ideology becomes a substitute for the reality of having to take into account the existence of others, acting rather to make the world into the image produced by that ideology (this includes racism and supra-nationalism). Second, bureaucracy is rule by technical efficiency and administrative regulation, rule without people (or rule by nobody), which is clearly the most tyrannical form of domination since no one can be asked to answer for what is being done (see also Arendt 1969: 38).[1] Third, terror is the use of violence to enforce ideology and bureaucracy.[2]

These elements exist in every contemporary state jurisdiction, particularly in zones of extreme restriction where state-sanctioned organisations of policing are permitted to use extra force, beyond what is authorised and considered legitimate on the normative side of the line, which is the citizens. Such situations include refugee camps and immigration detention centres. They also include institutional racism, resulting in a racialised population harassed by police and a criminal justice system that imprisons a hugely disproportionate number of black citizens in Britain and the USA. On another scale, beyond the confines of any particular state, they include the often large areas of fragmented states where rival gang-masters seek the spoils of armed exploitation and trade, including trade in arms – situations of endemic violence.

People trapped in these situations of extra violence have their own capacities for action in the performance of their daily lives and their networks of self-help. Their own resources include grim irony at the expense of the normative order, so violent and humourless. They include an extraordinary inventiveness for survival and the possibility of maturing and having children in dire circumstances. On a greater scale of encompassment, they include the preservation and reinvention in changed circumstances of traditions of ritual and story-telling that include imagining a transcendental possibility of justice and righteousness, an ideal state. But in many instances, they do not include the conditions for organising armed counter-violence.

We cannot ignore the extreme restrictions and violence that traps these people, often killing them and stunting their lives, crippling and scarring them psychically, and creating an internalised violence of humiliated rage. This was Fanon’s main point. Such destructive brutality is perpetrated by legitimised police and armed forces acting as gangs but also by the gangs that they license to capture and destroy. There may indeed be collusion between the two. Such situations include entrapment in enclaves of discrimination and super-exploitation, humiliation exerted at checkpoints, humiliation of the casual and undocumented worker, and extreme violence exerted on female bodies, the gang violence of enforced prostitution, an economy of shame and anger, externalised as paranoia and internalised as self-harm. Only in some circumstances is there the space for armed self-defence to be organised as a release. In other circumstances, we must ask, what forms of action can relieve such crippling internalisation of violence.

In the forests and hills of central and eastern India, wherever there is adequate space for counter-violence, as in much of the Amazon, the tribal inhabitants have been glorified as noble savages and treated with extreme brutality and barbarism by the dominant states. These areas have remained at the extreme margins of their states, without provision of decent health care or education and left to the mercy of extractive multinational companies mining their rich mineral reserves, clearing their forests for timber or for planting soya beans, dispossessing them of the few means they have to sustain themselves. It is hardly surprising then to find societies against the state (Clastres 1974) or that have sought to keep the state away (Shah 2010).

Yet one need not go to such remote regions to find similar brutality against human beings. A quick observation of the daily queues of construction labourers in any large city brings into focus the number of people living a hand-to-mouth existence. Mike Davis (2006) argues that this – the informal working class – is the fastest growing social class on earth, standing currently at about a billion people. They live in slum wastelands often without clean water or a chance of education, where medical crises leave families in life crushing debt.

Defence against these dehumanising states is also a fight for the possibilities of action, which for Arendt is at once human and political; it is the capacity to bring about change, to make something new. The fight for politics is a fight against all the totalitarian processes that dehumanise us and banish thought, but in particular it is a release from extreme situations of violence.

Arendt, Fanon, and Mao

So, if violence sometimes may be the only way to achieve a better world and is a realistic possibility, let us consider more carefully what Arendt means by politics in her critique of violence. It carries with it a due warning to any armed struggle for emancipation. Arendt wrote ‘On Violence’ in the context of the ongoing student and workers’ movement against universities and governments and the global anti-Vietnam war movement. These movements supported a sense of revolutionary, socialist possibilities as well as serious contemplation of armed struggles for emancipation from imperialist capitalism – a continuation of armed struggles to rid colonies of their occupying states. These were times when the example of Maoist politics, against both US imperialism and Soviet ‘revisionism,’ brought about splits in virtually every Communist Party in the world. There were advocates of anti-imperialist armed struggle and of urban-based organisation and participation through electoral politics.

Quite independently from Maoists’ advocacy of armed struggle, but indicating a similar split, Franz Fanon’s theory of counter-violence, based on his personal involvement as a psychiatrist and as a political activist, had picked up an earlier theory by George Sorel on the necessity of violence to enhance the productive power of the working class, for whom the general strike and its defensive militia were crucial weapons.

Arendt’s essay ‘On Violence’ pays particular attention to Fanon and Sorel as theorists of the necessity of violence for emancipatory revolution. At the same time her essay is a critique of the statement by Mao that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Arendt’s criticism is based on an important distinction between violence and power, which we must heed. Violence, for Arendt, is always instrumental and should never be conflated with politics itself: ‘it can always destroy power; out of the barrel of the gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power’ (1969: 53). Though she was not a pacifist, and recognised that violence is sometimes necessary as a short-term solution, Arendt sees violence as always giving rise to unintended as well as unpredictable outcomes beyond the immediate ends pursued. Among these unintended outcomes, sustained violence becomes a politics of terror that simply maintains the status quo instead of opening up the capacity to make changes, to be creative politically.

Power on the other hand, for Arendt, is action in concert through a collective will, eventually supporting laws by enacting active consent to them. Power is then ‘an end in itself,’ (1969: 51) a human ability to empower each other. Unlike violence, power cannot be thought of instrumentally. The greater the scale of agreement to act in concert, the greater the power. Its negation, closing down such action, leads either to terror and the atomisation on which it relies, or to the bureaucratisation of rule and of politics (these were of course the very forces against which the student movement of the time was acting).

Arendt does not acknowledge in the colonial situation the daily humiliation, backed by arms, of an occupied population. In other words, she does not take into account a situation of long-term embedded violence. Nor does she address how collective, not individual, self-defence might be organised. She does not recognise that this collective self-defence is qualitatively different from the naturally and legally justified violence of individual self-defence against being violated. Collective self-defence would in her terms have to be concerted – combining the power to act and in the first instance to act violently.

Fanon’s theory of counter-violence is that it is not psychological in the biological sense of instinctual drives, including those of individual self-defence and survival. To take up arms to defeat destructive violence is to seek and find a liberating violence, one that liberates both the tortured and the torturers from dreams in which the tortured would merely replace the torturers and the torturers’ fear precisely the same. It is to substitute for these un-political dreams, the vision of a national liberation. In 1954, Ben Bella and eight other Algerian revolutionary leaders created the National Liberation Front (FLN). They maintained that ‘the only negotiation is war’ (Joffe 2012). Under Ben Bella, the first President of independent Algeria from 1963 to 1965, the national liberation government of Algeria seemed to match these generous politics, but his increasing autocracy eventually led to a military coup by his former comrades in arms and subsequently to an exclusive Arab nationalism and religious sectarian opposition, both appealing to a supranational and exclusive totality.

For Arendt such supra-nationalism becomes linked to the violent means to command and to bureaucratic administration, which was the character of imperialism and racism. It spells the end of power and politics. This supra-nationalism is to be distinguished from what Jürgen Habermas (1994) has called ‘constitutional patriotism,’[3] loyalty to the institutions of plurality, as in a federation or a treaty between entities or parties of acknowledged difference, and to institutions that increase and encourage the possibility of politics.

It is possible to agree with Arendt’s critique of violence, while aspiring to a politics of armed, concerted self-defence: how can this lead, or rather cede to a politics that continues to be emancipatory? How can it avoid becoming anti-political? Fanon envisioned an organisation of armed warfare that did more than what all wars do, which is to create comradeship in the face of death, a collective that will survive the death of the individual who is prepared to sacrifice his/her life. It would in addition politicise and inform the isolated and politically uninformed. This is surely not automatic. It depends on the politics of the organisation of violence. It is a matter of an open leadership being held to account by those it leads, and of all being vigilant against the propensity of the organisation of violence to turn into mere command and to an organisation of warlords and gangs.

The organisation of armed insurrection is the main subject of this book. But it is not the only possible form of countering dehumanising, brutal, atomising violence. The urban organisation of self-defence militias, and even the shielding needed for militant non-violent protests would be both necessary and part of a liberating process.

Concerted action against the violence and anti-politics of corporate bureaucracy, of states and large multi-national firms, has to be re-thought from this point. In the context of a far greater integration of places into bureaucratically organised and sub-contracted rule, we have to ask what difference urban and rural situations, the city and remote or marginal locations make to the organisation of concerted counter-violence. We must also ask what a socialist social movement might be that can hold its leadership to account. And what kind of state power would be wielded by such a movement, whatever self-defence is organised by it.


Arendt, H. 1970. On Violence. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and World.

_____ 1985. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Cherki, A. 2006. Franz Fanon: A Portrait. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Clastres, P. 1987 [1974]. Society Against the State: essays in political anthropology. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Davis, M. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Fanon, F. 2001 [1961]. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.

Feuchtwang, S. 1985. Fanon’s politics of culture; the colonial situation and its extension. Economy and Society 14: 4, 450-473.

Habermas, J. 1994. Citizenship and national identity. In The Condition of Citizenship (ed.) B. van Steenbergen, 20-55. London: Sage Publications.

Joffe, L. 2012. Obituary of Ben Bella. The Guardian, 11 April (available on-line at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/11/ahmed-ben-bella, accessed 10 July 2015).

Sartre, J.P. 2001 [1961]. Preface to The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.

Young-Bruehl, E. 2006. Why Arendt Matters. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.


  1. And bureaucratized unions, administrative organs of a working class that provide a purely defensive organisation, of income and conditions of work, were to a large but not complete extent to maintain the purchasing power of their members and a deflection from their potential as a basis for a new, emancipatory politics.
  2. This summary relies on our own reading, but also on the one provided by Young-Bruelh (2006).
  3. See Habermas (1994).