September 3, 2002

Sartre on Terrorism

Since the U.S. is now supposedly involved in a "War on Terror," it might be worthwhile to examine the historical meaning of the word. An essay written in December 1967 by Jean Paul Sartre about Vietnam, sheds some light on how terror has traditionally been an instrument of colonial powers for controlling the populations of their colonies. Here's an excerpt:

Vietnam: Imperialism and Genocide
Jean Paul Sartre
December 1967

... after 1830 and during the whole of the last century, there were many examples of genocide outside Europe. Some of these were the expression of authoritarian political structures and the others -- those relevant for the understanding of the sources of the United States imperialism and the nature of the war in Vietnam -- had their origin in the internal structures of capitalist democracies. To export goods and capital, the great powers -- England and France in particular -- built themselves colonial empires. The name given by the French to their "Conquests" -- possessions d'outre mer (overseas possessions) -- indicates clearly that they had managed to obtain them only by wars of aggression. The aggressor seeks out the adversary on his own ground, in Africa, in Asia, in the under-developed countries; and, far from waging a "total war", which would presuppose a certain reciprocity at the outset, he takes advantage of his absolute superiority in arms to commit only an expeditionary corps to the conflict. This gains an easy victory over the regular armies -- if there are any -- but as this uncalled-for aggression arouses the hatred of the civilian population, and since the latter is always a mine of rebels or soldiers, the colonial troops hold sway by terror, that is to say, by constantly renewed massacres. These massacres are genocidal in character: they involve destroying "a part of the group" (ethnic, national, religious) to terrorize the rest and to destructure the native society. When in the last century the French, after wreaking havoc in Algeria, imposed on its tribal society -- where each community owned the land jointly -- the practive of the Code Civile, which introduced the legal norms of bourgeois ownership and enforce the dividing up of inheritances, they systematically destroyed the economic infrastructure of the country and the land soon passed from the peasant clans into the hands of taders from the parent country. In point of fact colonization is not a matter of mere conquest -- like the annexation in 1870 by Germany of Alsace-Lorraine; it is, of necessity, cultural genocide. Colonization cannot take place without the systematic elimination of the distinctive features of the native society, combined with the refusal to allow its members integration with the parent country, or to benefit from its advantages. Colonialism is, in fact, a system: the colony sells raw materials and foodstuffs at preferential rates to the colonizing power whic, in return, sells the colony industrial goods at the price current on the world market. This curious system of exchange can be established only if work is imposed on a colonial sup-proletariat for starvation wages. The inevitable consequence is that the colonized peoples lose their national individuality, their culture and their customs, sometimes even their language, and live, in abject poverty, like shadows, ceaselessly reminded of their "sub-humanity."

-- By David Cogswell

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