The era of decolonization is a conspicuous moment in world history. In order to understand the period precisely, it is necessary to consider it both in its general and its particular form, and to understand how a large variety of different struggles around the world may be seen as being linked by a shared conviction in the obsolescence of imperial forms of governance and by the prevalence of economic and social conditions that made successful anti-imperial struggle possible. Such a consideration shows both the various forms that decolonization can be seen to have taken, and also the potential for each of these forms to effect real, if only momentary, changes in social relations.
According to Tignor et al. (2011), the process of world-wide decolonization can be seen following three broad patterns: “civil war, negotiated independence, and incomplete decolonization” (p. 756). The authors then note that the Chinese Revolution was the first example of a major decolonization movement, although it should equally well be seen as an event which expanded the political horizons of the country, and which sought to bring emancipatory politics to women and to peasants as well as to those who lived under Japanese occupation in major cities (p. 758).

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This tendency for decolonization movements to dovetail with the expansion and development of communist and socialist politics is something which may also be noted in relation to Africa and India, both of which had been the subject of European colonization throughout the 19th and the first of the 20th centuries. Despite this, however, Tignor et al. also note that these two areas of the world may be seen as examples of places in which decolonization as achieved through with “little bloodshed,” and in which occupying countries are posited as simply realizing that they could no longer rule without extreme coercion and therefore “bowed to the inevitable” (p. 760). In the case of India, it is suggested that Ghandi and other “middle-class,” highly educated individuals were able both to mobilize doctrines of non-violence for political aim, and also to convince British forces that the time was right for a smooth transfer of power over to Indian forces (p. 761). In a similar sense to Indian, Tignor et al. note that nationalist movements played a major role in decolonization in Africa, and that this was largely a result of the growth of these movements within the inter-war period. The authors state that factors such as the growth of major cities, improvements in education and general concentration of indigenous populations all played a major role in the growth of such movements, and in their irrefutable nature (p. 766).

Despite this, however, it is important to note the so-called “incomplete” decolonizations, which typically involved a large amount of violence and which also produced the most powerful political texts concerning decolonization. According to Tignor et al., examples of such decolonizations include in the on-going conflict between the Israeli state of the Palestinian people, but are most frequently historically cited in relation to different areas of Africa (p. 767). The authors note that struggles in such areas frequently involved socialist and communist politics, and that they may also be seen to have encapsulated the violence that many individuals associate with decolonization. The violent reputation of such struggles is something which has formed a major part of their contemporary documentation. For example, when discussing the early days of the Algerian revolution, Alistair Horne (1997) describes how, on one occasion, “armed men, bent on trouble…egged on by the blood curdling you-you of their women, began an indiscriminate massacre of any Europeans caught out in the streets” (p. 26). Likewise, Tignor et al note that the aftermath of African decolonization often involved very large amounts of bloodshed.

Despite this, however, it is also clear that decolonization in certain areas of Africa may also be seen to have produced fundamental changes in social relations that were not achieved in more peaceful decolonization struggles. When writing of the process of decolonization, Franz Fanon, an Algerian psychoanalyst and witness to the Algerian war of independence, noted that decolonization is both always a “violent” process, but also that this violence emerges because it involves the “replacing” of one kind of person with another (1967, p. 5). The process of replacement is one in which fundamental social relations are challenged and changed, something evidenced by what Tignor and et al observe as the increased involvement of women in struggle in Algeria as well as eastern and southern Africa; an involvement which, while it lasted, fundamentally changed the nature of gender relations in the areas in question (p. 767).

In conclusion, therefore, decolonization took several forms throughout the world, and that these forms may be judged as being more or less violent depending on the conditions that underpinned decolonization, and depending on the particular form of leadership that the emerging state sought to maintain. Although it is possible to argue that states such as India were able to achieve decolonization with a minimum of blood-shed, it is equally important to note such nations seemingly achieved the least change in their social hierarchies. Rather, if one considers China, and especially the so-called “incomplete” decolonization struggles throughout the African continent, it is possible to argue that the amount of actual change that a revolution was capable of introducing, even if only momentarily, to a society, was commensurate with the intensity of its struggle, and therefore with the amount of violence involved.

  • Fanon, Franz. (1965). The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. Macgibbon & Kee: London.
  • Horne, Alistair. (1977). A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. MacMilllan: London.
  • Tignor, Robert. Aldman, Jeremy. Aron Stephen et al. (2011). Worlds Together Worlds Apart: A History of the World: Volume Two. London & New York: Norton and Norton.