Decolonization, as Frantz Fanon tells us, is “a program of complete disorder”; it creates chaos for the settler, but also disorders the mind of the formerly colonized, enveloping them in a “historical process” in which they become agents of disrupting the colonial world. Nowhere is this meticulous process of disorder more accurately traced than in the 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. We see decolonization depicted as both a “violent phenomenon” and as a historical evolution. The Battle of Algiers helps us visualize the dialectic of decolonization; as it subsumes the characters of settler and colonized, it synthesizes a “new man”. When we read Fanon’s view of decolonization vis-à-vis the film’s central character, the real life FLN fighter Ali la Pointe, we gain a lucid picture of the “new man” that decolonization creates. In two scenes, I wish to reflect on Ali’s evolution throughout the film in parallel with Fanon’s understanding of decolonization. In the first, our introduction to Ali, we witness his conscientization through violence. In the second, a conversation between Ali and Larbi Ben H’midi, we see a more expansive view of decolonization beyond the paradigm of violence. In tracing Ali’s evolution, we can see the development of Fanon’s thought on decolonization, from the totality of violence to the theorization of a new world.
Our introduction to Ali la Pointe comes early in the film. We meet Ali gambling in the Casbah; a French settler tips off a police officer, proclaiming “He is always there!”. The police officer gives chase, and we begin to see the Casbah not as an isolated zone of Ali’s existence, but as one half of a Manichaean world, “a world cut in two”, “a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute” (1961, 39). Ali’s status as a colonized subject is a criminalized existence, the perpetual status of being the “quintessence of evil… the enemy of values” (41), an evil that must be monitored by “the policeman and the soldier”, who “by their immediate presence… advise him by means of rifle butts… not to budge” (38). But Ali, fleeing the policeman, strays into the settler’s zone, crossing the divide of the Manichean world. Running past a crowd of French settlers, he is greeted with the gawking intrigue afforded to a stray animal, as one asks “Where’s he off to in a hurry?”. As Fanon points out, in the colonial world, “Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native… it turns him into an animal” (42). Thus, Ali’s presence stands out; the settlers feel entitled to interrogate him, confident that it is he who is amiss, not they. But as Fanon reminds us, “in defiance of his successful transplantation” it is the settler who “remains a foreigner” (40). They are “always on the defensive” (39), constantly “remind[ing] the native out loud that there he alone is master” (53), and so one settler commands another “Go, stop him”.
The settler trips Ali as he is running, and we witness him smirk as he restores their dialectical relationship of master and slave. Here is the exact motion, as Fanon wrote, of decolonization as “the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature" (36). The settler’s cruelty serves only to keep “alive in the native an anger” (53), making the move to armed anti-colonial violence inevitable (54). When Ali lifts himself off the ground and faces the colonizer smirking at him, we can see that anger boiling over in his eyes. Suddenly, the expression on the face of the settler changes drastically from its prior “hauteur” (53). Both realize that Ali’s response must be “to silence the settler's defiance, to break his flaunting violence--in a word, to put him out of the picture” (44). In this motion, when Ali stands up to the settler, “he has already decided to eject him and to take his place”, and the dread on the settler’s face reveals that “a whole material and moral universe… is breaking up” (45). It is in this act of violence that decolonization’s first movement is represented. By striking the settler, Ali “discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler… and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner” (45). Ali has regained his humanity from the prior dehumanization; in proving that the settler is not his master, Ali can join with Fanon in saying “I don't give a damn for him. Not only does his presence no longer trouble me, but… soon there will be no way out [for him] but that of flight” (45). For Fanon, mental emancipation, the gaining of consciousness and rejection of dehumanization is the first step in waging a struggle for full emancipation.
Ali knows that the policeman is right behind him. Knowing he will be captured, he strikes the settler anyways. Instead of getting up and running away, he ensures that the settlers see him punch the one who dared trip him. This is an important moment for him; choosing to fight for his humanity, he sacrifices escape from the police to win a battle for consciousness. The subsequent beating that Ali receives at the hands of the other settlers proves Fanon correct when he says “the settler's world… represents not merely a hell from which the swiftest flight possible is desirable, but also a paradise close at hand which is guarded by terrible watchdogs” (53). Fanon is incisive here; the settlers swarm Ali like a cloud of wasps, becoming more animalistic than their most inventive descriptions of the native which “constantly refer to the bestiary”. It is the settlers themselves who become “faces bereft of all humanity… distended bodies… [a] mob without beginning or end” (42). But as the settlers reveal their inhumanity, it is already too late for them; decolonization has taken hold. Ali’s imprisonment will bring him into the ranks of the FLN, but his decision to move to anti-colonial violence in striking the settler is the first motion of choosing “to embody history in his own person” as “he surges into the forbidden quarters” (40). As Fanon predicts, for Ali now “to wreck the colonial world” is more than “a mental picture of action” (40). Ali has become part of the historical process of decolonization as one of many agents of its progression, through his first tangible image of the “destruction of the colonial world” (41).
As we watch Ali develop throughout the film, we see him grow in confidence as a leader and as an agent of anti-colonial struggle. His path represents that taken by many Algerians who develop their own agency through struggle. But as Ali develops a mature political consciousness, he witnesses the evolving view within the FLN about the nuances of violence as a tool of decolonization. The most important moment of reflection sees Ali in conversation with a founder of the FLN, Larbi Ben M’hidi. I choose this as my second scene to reflect on Fanon’s complicated view of violence as he began to consider decolonization’s role in creating a new society.
On a rooftop, Ali and M’hidi discuss the state of the revolution and the FLN’s impending insurrectionary strike. M’hidi questions why Ali was not in favor of the strike; Ali answers that FLN leaders told him and his men that they “mustn't use weapons now” even though “the time is right”. Ali, who we have seen gain his consciousness through anti-colonial violence, is pressing for it to be applied and sees the strike as a wasted opportunity. M’hidi replies that “wars aren't won with terrorism… Terrorism is a beginning but afterward, all the people must act ... This is the reason for the strike, and its necessity: to mobilize all Algerians”. M’hidi focuses on the need to incorporate “all Algerians” because he perceives that decolonization must also involve the creation of consciousness on a mass scale. Here, M’hidi concurs with Fanon’s view that decolonization “unifies the people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity, by unifying it on a national basis” (46). This is an essential action to create the consciousness needed to overthrow colonialism in the first place, and to have a society after independence. It is this society that M’hidi is thinking of when he tells Ali that “starting a revolution is hard, and it's even harder to continue it. Winning is hardest of all. But only afterward, when we have won, will the real hardships begin”.
Even though he would not live to see the independence of Algeria, Fanon considered the problems that newly independent societies would have to address throughout his works. In a section entitled “Violence in the International Context”, Fanon addresses the fact that after independence, the mass of the people struggles against the same poverty”, persisting in “an underdeveloped world” (96). Fanon makes it quite clear that going beyond the national context means deciding “not to overlook this any longer” (96). But what can be done about the fact that “colonialism and imperialism have not paid their score when they withdraw their flags and their police forces from our territories” (101)? Or about the fact that the colonizers rarely leave completely; instead, they set “up around the young State the apparatus of economic pressure”? As Fanon rightly says, “the apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence, and the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression” (97). Decolonization, therefore, has hitherto been too narrowly defined. It cannot simply be about national independence. As Fanon explains, “we are not blinded by the moral reparation of national independence; nor are we fed by it" (102).
Instead, Fanon begins to lay out a program of global decolonization that puts into question the very wealth of the Global North. As he writes, “the wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too… Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” (102). If the goal of decolonization is abolish the colonizer and the colonized, and in surpassing their relationship to create a new man, then there can be no decolonization until the divide of the core and periphery is also addressed. Fanon does not lay out in a programmatic fashion how this will be done, though he raises the question of reparations, arguing that it must be “a just reparation which will be paid to us” (102). But Fanon is clear in asserting that decolonization cannot occur without the consciousness of the colonized. He stresses that no reparation will occur without the ratification of a “double realization: the realization by the colonized peoples that it is their due, and the realization by the capitalist powers that in fact they must pay” (103). This was part of Fanon’s mission to create a new consciousness: a Third World consciousness, one which asserted that “the young nations of the Third World… are strong in our own right, and in the justice of our point of view” (105). This sureness of view creates “hardships”, for it means contesting the First World’s domination until it too has been abolished; but this task must be committed to by the Third World.
It is a task that many are unwilling to undertake, and Fanon stressed that the comprador bourgeoisie would perpetuate the hardships of the formerly colonized masses. In a later section of Wretched of the Earth titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, Fanon addresses the fact that the national consciousness needed to win an anti-colonial struggle must be interrogated once colonialism is defeated. Fanon saw the (neo)colonial bourgeoisie, who “hasten to make their own fortunes and to set up a national system of exploitation” (164) as a group that continues to “bar the way to that unity, to that coordinated effort on the part of two hundred and fifty million men to triumph over stupidity, hunger and inhumanity at one and the same time”. Opposing them, Fanon argues that “we must understand that African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people, that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie” (164). Achieving true national liberation required moving past pure nationalism.
Fanon would thus articulate a philosophy beyond pure nationalism in his theory of decolonization. In a speech in Accra entitled “Why We Use Violence”, Fanon agreed with Kwame Nkrumah that “Africans who are naturally the majority in Africa should govern themselves in their own countries. We struggle for the future of humanity and it is a most important struggle” (2018, 120). Fanon points out that the ideas expressed by the Algerian revolution have “caused a mutation of the instinct of self-preservation into value and truth. For the Algerian people, the only solution was this heroic struggle at the heart of which they had to crystallize their national consciousness”, not purely as Algerians, but through “deepen[ing] their attribute as an African people” (120). Decolonization here goes beyond the narrow view of nationalism, and Fanon begins to engage in constructing a greater Third World and African identity; as he notes, “no one can deny that all this blood spilt in Algeria will definitely serve as leaven to the great African nation” (120).
By envisioning a “Third-Worldism”, beyond the narrow nationalism that supports the comprador bourgeoisie, Fanon was imagining that final victory of decolonization, something “we are not so naive as to think… will come about with the cooperation and the good will of the European governments” (106). Fanon, and Ali along with him, had grown to understand that the achieving of independence would not mean the end of decolonization. Though The Battle of Algiers ends in the optimistic prose of national independence, the struggle has never ended; this is evidenced by the rise of neocolonialism in the Third World since independence. But Fanon’s view of decolonization resonates in the film because of his emphasis that decolonization must be, above all, “the veritable creation of new men”, a creation we witness in real time as Ali, “the ‘thing’ which has been colonized”, through his awakening, “becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (36). Fanon stressed that this could not occur so long as there is a perpetuation of “the human spirit which contemplates the unfolding of history and which tries to stay on the ground of the universal” (2018, 119); instead, decolonization must create agents of history, willing to be their own liberators. Although Ali, M’hidi, and Fanon would all die before seeing the independence of Algeria, they all played roles as agents of that liberation. The first step for all of them, and for decolonization to fully occur, was to “flatly refuse the situation to which the Western countries wish to condemn us” (101). The Battle of Algiers allows us to literally watch Ali and all Algerians transformed from “spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history's floodlights upon” (36). Through this refusal to be spectators any longer, all these actors step onto the stage of history, and seize the agency to ensure that the process of decolonization that The Battle of Algiers depicts is one day completed.
The Battle of Algiers Script by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas. www.dailyscript.com/scripts/boa.html. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022.
Fanon, Frantz, Jean Khalfa, et al. Alienation and Freedom. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Fanon, Frantz. The Pitfalls of National Consciousness by Frantz Fanon. www.marxists.org/subject/africa/fanon/pitfalls-national.htm. Accessed 28 Oct. 2022.
Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, et al. The Wretched of the Earth. Anniversary, Grove Press, 2021.
Old Films Revival Project. “The Battle of Algiers - Gillo Pontecorvo | 1966.” YouTube, 28 Nov. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRE3j8pDMds.
By Joseph Mullen