The brutal friendship between colonialism and fascism: some thoughts from Aimé Césaire on systematic racism

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…

from ‘ Fascism: I sometimes fear…’ by Michael Rosen,

The British have found many ways to absolve themselves of their (our) historical sins. These sins include colonialism, plunder, and enslavement.

In this case, time is a great forgiver, or at least it is a great excuse for self-forgiveness. As are the iniquities of class, since so many people assume that their ancestors were almost as enslaved by the ‘English toffs’ as anyone else.

Then there is the ‘great act’ of Abolition — the fact that after two centuries of the brutal enslavement of people (who were unable to resist) there finally developed a public opinion of moral conscience. This was sufficient for the British state to decide eventually to end chattel enslavement. They did this in 1833, by paying huge sums of compensation to the already wealthy and free enslaves. However, no compensation was paid to the ‘liberated’ former slaves.

Continuing with the sense of moral distinction, there is also the combination of the ideals of civilisation and salvation that were once used to justify nearly all of the excesses of colonialism, plunder, and enslavement.

To this day, prominent scholars of British colonial history feel it is appropriate to argue that the British Empire was a ‘good thing’ overall. Roads, railways, schools, infrastructure, development, democracy, and generally good values. And all that sort of thing. So don’t ask the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’

Talking of education, the British have also found it very easy to use the school system to teach future generations they have been forgiven for the plunder and savagery of the wealth creation that made their country so prosperous. In a contemporary world, where we are forever on the lookout to criticise other nations for their lack and abuse of human rights, we have somehow come to regrettably accept (and tacitly forgive) all of the outrages of British colonial history.

Probably most of all, the successful rehabilitation of the British sense of fairness and morality has been possible because of the colonial use of distance. Enslavement and plunder happened, and made England and Britain very rich.

But it all happened a long way away, across oceans, in other parts of the world. In Virginia, and the Caribbean, and India, and then in Africa, and elsewhere. Using people of different skin colours, kidnapping and chaining up those who could not resist, and taking them to other remote places as economic units in the creation of wealth.

None of this was easily visible in the home counties, close to home in the British Isles. Only the fruits of the plunder were visible, the new wealth, the investment, and the success. Even now, the main places associated with the empire and its exploitation bear only scarce traces of that shameful history — Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow in particular — and have only come to remember through a long process of amnesia.

Britain differs here from the United States — the place that was once (like the Caribbean) a remote and removed part of the British tale of plunder and exploitation. When the US became independent, the formerly (white) British — now Americans — found themselves living alongside the enslaved and exploited. Unlike the British, the Americans could not hive off and forget the places where they had violently transplanted people from Africa. The British had the Caribbean nations of Jamaica, Trinidad, etc., all far away and forgotten. In America, the African Americans remained within the white Americans’ domain.

When the enslaved of America eventually became former slaves, and from there became potentially full citizens of the nation, the former enslavers (the white Americans) then had to find ways of creating the distance these desired. One option was repatriation (for example, through the creation of Liberia in West Africa). The other, preferred option was segregation, through Jim Crow.

While Britain largely succeeded in keeping the empire away from the home, the US in the end decided to make the home the empire. The ‘subjugated’ people of the empire (people of colour, particularly African Americans) became segregated colonial subjects within the nation. Perhaps ironically, this was because the US did not wish to become an empire (in the way that Britain had become), and so did not pursue overseas colonies beyond the creation of Liberia.

In a twist to this process, the end of the British empire coincided with the almost unprecedented financial mid-twentieth century devastation following the Second World War. Rebuilding and reconstruction only became possible in Britain through the use of labour from the former and acceding colonies — India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. And thus the empire finally came in large numbers to Britain, reforming and transforming the once racially distinct homelands.

The French Martinique writer, poet, and politician Aimé Césaire commented in 1955 that there is a very close link between the colonies and the colonisers, and that colonization brutalises the coloniser.

To quote Césaire’s Discourse on Civilization at length, we can take any of his examples of colonies or former colonies and substitute instead ‘in Britain’ for ‘in France’:

First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism…
[A]nd we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the fact, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead weight, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread…
[A]nd that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and “interrogated”, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been instilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific reverse shock: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind — it’s Nazism, it will pass!”
And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms..
[T]hat it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.

That is, for Aimé Césaire the roots of fascism do not lie solely within the politics of a narrowly defined Europe (nor indeed in the politics of a simple idea of the USA).

He was, of course, writing in the 1950s, in the wake of the rise of fascism in the 1920-40s, in Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, that eventually led to the devastation of the Holocaust and the Second World War.

But his analysis bears down on us today as well, as we face the potential horrors of new waves of fascism and right wing (so called ‘alt-right’) extremism across Europe and North America.

The roots of modern fascism lie within the tyrannies of colonialism, with the horrors of racist, white supremacism. By tolerating the brutalities of a present that were created by such a violent and brutal past, Europeans have been accomplices of the rise of a nazism that was seemingly acceptable, since it was so distant and so remote (or so segregated).

In America this lives on in mass incarceration and the everyday racism that leads to urgent cries of ‘Black Lives Matters’. It also lives on in everyday racial discrimination in Europe, and the rise of Islamophobia as a particular form of postcolonial racism.

For as long as such fascism is tolerated, legitimised, and cultivated, it will ‘ooze, seep, and trickle from every crack’, calling us to ‘take back control’ and make our country ‘great again’. It will continue to scare us with Brexit, Trump, and most likely much much worse.

For as long as we continue to forget and to think we can forgive ourselves for the horrors of our past, we are at risk from the fascism that we have exported and practised so effectively elsewhere. There is no doubt that such fascism could once again come back to its source, and make itself at home with us.

It is a large part of a story that we seem to want to hear.

Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

Also by Malory Nye:

Photo credit: The Empire Needs Men! Enlist Now. 1915, England. Source: Library and Archives Canada, War Records Survey Posters [graphic material] (R1185–67–0-E). Mikan number 3666684.

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