The Coloniser and the Colonised 
by Albert Memmi, translated by Howard Greenfield.
Earthscan, 197 pp., £12.95, October 2003, 1 84407 040 9
Show More
Show More

Is there a distinct social psychology of colonialism? Albert Memmi certainly thought so when he published The Coloniser and the Colonised in 1957. He was not the only one. Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban had appeared in 1950, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in 1952. And while Memmi had mixed feelings about Fanon, and Fanon had bitterly attacked Mannoni for his theory of colonial dependency, they shared an emphasis on the colonial relation which implied an attention to the mind of the coloniser as well as to the predicament of the colonised. In this, all three writers anticipated post-colonial theorists’ understanding of colonialism, not only as an economic and political system, but as a psychic one too. And despite their differences, each believed that there was something pathological about that system. All three were Francophone writers, drawing on their varied experiences of French colonialism. Mannoni had served in the colonial service in Madagascar; Fanon was born in a French colony, Martinique, and spent much of his adult life in French North Africa; Memmi was born in the Jewish ghetto in Tunis, and now lives in Paris. Their writing contrasts markedly with its Anglophone equivalents, such as J.C. Carothers’s The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953); the British version of the psychology of colonialism in Africa paid little or no attention to the experience of the coloniser, focusing instead on the question of native psychopathology. The relationship between coloniser and colonised was not their concern.

One way of accounting for this difference is to point to the greater influence of psychoanalysis on Francophone intellectuals; another is to refer to the peculiarities of French colonial rule and the theories behind it. The Revolution had promised liberty, but this presented a few difficulties in a colonial world dominated by slavery. Later generations of French colonial rulers would claim that colonialism was a system of government committed to the advancement of the Revolutionary ideals. Colonialism, that is to say, was a form of liberation – an idea which finds some belated echoes today.

Colonial rule would not only advance the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity: it would also promise to its colonial subjects that they could participate fully in French civilisation – that they could become French, no less. This programme of ‘assimilation’ was later downgraded to one of ‘association’, but the basic idea remained the same. The way to be assimilated was to disavow your own history and absorb a lot of French history until it became your own. Though on the ground and in the day-to-day running of things, French and British colonial practices were probably quite similar, the British never promised ‘assimilation’ to their colonial subjects. Recognising differences and then reifying them was more the British style. While the French taught in French, the British frequently taught in local languages (a mixed blessing). For the British colonial rulers, the ‘civilised’ native was often regarded with suspicion – we preferred our natives clothed in customary dress, pursuing an older sort of politics. It followed that when the British worried about the psychological effects of colonialism they did so predominantly by referring to the terrible consequences of ‘deculturation’ for native peoples. If colonial subjects were going mad in increasing numbers (as some suspected they were) this was not because of colonial domination, but because of their inability to adapt to modern life and the loss of their customs. ‘Civilisation’, according to some British colonial psychiatrists, was not the cure: it was the problem.

Memmi’s powerful account of the psychodynamics of colonialism was written during the Algerian War, but also in the wake of Tunisian independence. Colonialism, for Memmi, was ‘one variety of fascism’, and its key tools were racism and terror. The Algerian War was a clear demonstration of that. But in The Coloniser and the Colonised, as the title implies, Memmi was particularly concerned to describe the ‘two protagonists of the colonial drama and the relationship that binds them’. In his preface to the 1965 edition, he makes the point that the book was written from personal experience – an experience with which, as it turned out, many other colonised people could identify. Writing it was, for Memmi, a way of putting some order into the ‘chaos of my feelings’ and of forming a basis for his future actions. The colonial situation is, he insists, complex; it is not a case of choosing between a Marxist and a Freudian analysis, because not everything can be reduced either to ‘the profit motive or the Oedipus complex’.

What Memmi finally produces is a structural analysis of the dialectical relation between ruler and ruled, with two portraits: one of the coloniser, the other of the colonised. Each mirrors the other; both must play their designated roles in the colonial drama. The coloniser is privileged, his status and standard of living far higher than they would be in Europe. He realises that this privilege is illegitimate and that he is therefore a usurper, but this knowledge binds him ever more tightly into the system. He asserts his superiority, constructs a denigrating myth of the colonised, and hopes that he can thereby transform usurpation into legitimacy. Racist ideology acts as a justification for injustice: the colonised subject is lazy, he is so deficient that he requires protection, he smells, he is greedy, he does not know how to breathe. The traits ascribed to him are incompatible with one another, but that does not bother the coloniser. There is a strong sense in which the colonised subject does not exist – his (and her) disappearance has been effected by the system.

Memmi acknowledges that some Europeans are reluctant colonisers and that some attempt to refuse the role the system has assigned them, but ‘it is not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationships.’ The contradictions eventually get to the coloniser, grind him down, as do the ‘little strains of daily life’. In one wonderful paragraph Memmi describes how the left-leaning ‘coloniser who refuses’ finds that he cannot, after all, stand the taste of couscous, the sound of fairground music or the smell of old mutton fat. He experiences revulsion, and his attempts to assert an anti-colonial politics meet with an impossibility. ‘Colonial relations,’ Memmi writes, ‘do not stem from individual goodwill or actions; they exist before’ the coloniser’s ‘arrival or his birth, and whether he accepts or rejects them matters little.’

In her introduction to this edition of the book, Nadine Gordimer takes Memmi to task for his summary dismissal of the left and his refusal to see a role for the ‘coloniser who refuses’. Drawing largely on Southern African history, which Memmi could be forgiven for not anticipating, Gordimer argues that a minority of leftist colonisers not only fought for colonial liberation, but stayed on to live under post-colonial majority governments. Their level of self-awareness, she argues, was greater than Memmi’s psychological portrait allowed, for these were people who saw that colonialism had ‘misshapen them too’ and that its privileges were distortions. They welcomed the withdrawal of these privileges in post-colonial society, for this allowed them to live a ‘normalcy they had never had a chance to experience’. There is, surely, a degree of post-struggle South African romanticism here.

As Gordimer implies, Memmi’s analysis is highly deterministic, despite his avowed interest in the complexities of lived experience. If reluctant colonisers have no room for manoeuvre within the dialectical relationships of colonialism, colonised subjects have even less. One possible response to colonisation is assimilation: the colonised subject must ‘change his skin’ and aim at resembling the coloniser to the point of disappearing into him. Assimilation entails extremism. The colonised must learn to hate himself, reject his own traditions, annihilate his own history and then dissolve himself. But there is a problem: assimilation is a structural impossibility in the colonial system, precisely because colonialism, in Memmi’s model, is a two-way relationship – assimilation would end it.

Faced with this impossibility, the colonised subject turns to the only other ‘historically possible solution’, which is to revolt. The revolt takes the form of an assertion of difference requiring the same degree of extremism as assimilation. The colonised becomes racist and xenophobic: he is a nationalist, not an internationalist. He resurrects old myths. Above all, he returns to religion. The young intellectual who had rejected religion now begins to fast ‘with ostentation’. The European left looks on with ‘astonishment and embarrassment’. Denied his own history for so long, the colonised now ‘imperiously demands recognition’. But this revolt is going nowhere, according to Memmi. This falling back on traditional values cannot result in a real transformation of society, but instead only in petrification, for colonised society is a ‘diseased society in which internal dynamics no longer succeed in creating new structures.’ The colonised subject remains alienated from himself, unable to contain his internal contradictions. His ‘cure’, Memmi concludes, will come only with the complete disappearance of colonisation, ‘including the period of revolt’.

In this analysis, there are only two people in the colonial relationship. But here and there Memmi implies that there may be a third. He hints at this in references to his own biography. Memmi was born into one of those colonial minorities which, by their mere existence, upset the dualism of his theory. Born in the Jewish ghetto of Tunis, to a father of Jewish-Italian origins and a mother of Jewish-Berber ones, Memmi was a colonial subject of a peculiar kind. ‘I must explain,’ he writes, ‘I know the coloniser from the inside almost as well as I know the colonised.’ Like other Tunisians, he was denied civil and political rights. But he was not a Muslim, and ‘in a country where so many groups, each jealous of its own physiognomy, lived side by side, this was of considerable importance.’ The Jewish population of Tunisia were prime candidates for assimilation, and some pursued it enthusiastically, hoping that by choosing the French language, dressing in the Italian style and ‘joyfully’ adopting ‘every idiosyncrasy of the Europeans’, they would find themselves a notch above the Muslim subject on the ‘pyramid of petty tyrants’ which constituted the colonial order.

Every colonial society, no matter how black and white in theory, harboured liminal populations which haunted them from within, and these populations played an important part in destabilising the myths of colonial racism which Memmi so clearly delineated. ‘White’ was not a natural category any more than ‘black’ was; who did and did not belong to the category of coloniser was always a fraught issue. Wherever colonial rule staked its claim it relied to a greater or lesser degree on intermediaries to do its work. These might be members of native communities, or they might be members of minority immigrant groups – Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks, Chinese. Were these groups ‘white’? It depended on the situation. In the case of Memmi’s Tunisia, some sections of the Jewish population had been there since the third century, and Jews had as good a claim to be ‘native’ as anyone. But for the French, natives were Arabs.

Class, too, upset the dualism of coloniser and colonised. In Memmi’s account, the working-class coloniser is the keenest of all, since he has the most to gain from his new-found privileges, but recent scholarship had shown this to be as mythical as the portrait of the lazy native. Like Fanon, who famously wrote of the black woman, ‘I know nothing about her,’ Memmi has little to say about the role played by women in the colonial drama, except to repeat the myth that the wife of the coloniser is more determinedly racist than her husband, and to refer to mixed marriages (of which he has written more extensively in his novels) as a symptom of the profound confusion experienced by the colonised subject. But sexual desire was a constantly destabilising force in colonial societies, and populations of ‘mixed race’ children could not be erased.

Memmi’s insistence that colonialism is, in essence, a binary system of coloniser and colonised, oppressor and oppressed, was a political strategy. It is easy to see how his account would have resonated in the colonised world when it appeared in 1957. The French had withdrawn from Indochina and had conceded independence to Bourguiba’s modernising nationalists in Tunisia, but were fighting a bloody war to retain Algeria. Kenyans were still living under British emergency powers in the wake of Mau Mau. Ghana would soon achieve its independence; the crisis in the Congo was yet to come. The colonial world was in ferment. But colonial societies were always messier than Memmi allows, their ideologies less hegemonic than he claims. This is not to argue (as some writers have come close to doing recently) that colonialism was ephemeral or even quite a good thing. Race was an integral part of the colonial myth, as Memmi shows, and racism continues to thrive in the post-colonial metropoles. But colonial power often operated more insidiously than by setting coloniser against colonised. Colonial nationalism frequently revealed rather than concealed the fact that one of the most profound effects of colonial rule was to deepen differences within the colonised population. Sometimes this was the result of conscious ‘divide and rule’ tactics; more often the outcome of the workings of capitalism, the clumsiness and patchiness of administrative systems, and local reworkings of ideologies of race and difference. The Algerian war of liberation ended in civil war; Mau Mau was as much a war between Kenyans as against colonialism.

Memmi’s own history and his relationship with Tunisia is revealing of the complex consequences of colonial rule. Tunisia’s Jewish community had lived for centuries among its Arab population, sharing a language and a culture. Memmi would later assert that this had never been a peaceful coexistence, and that Jews had always been second-class citizens, subject to periodic persecution. Others describe this history more positively as one that created the ‘Arab-Jew’, an identity which allowed both for the extensive sharing of cultural practices and the recognition of differences. For some Sephardic Jewish writers, like Ella Habiba Shohat, this syncretic history is to be celebrated, and to be set against the essentialisms of both Israeli and American politics. But for Memmi it appears always to have been marked by unhappiness and pain, and made yet more painful by the interference of the French, whose efforts to ‘buy off’ the Jewish population and separate them from their Arab neighbours appear to have been quite successful. In The Coloniser and the Colonised (and in his activities leading up to its publication) Memmi, notwithstanding the complexities of his own history, made a courageous political stand, taking the part of the colonised. ‘We defended the Arabs because they were oppressed,’ he would later write.

After independence, Tunisia’s government under Bourguiba embarked on a far-reaching programme of secular modernisation and attempted to homogenise the population. It invested heavily in education, advanced gender equality (which included campaigning against the veil) and unified the judicial system (abolishing both sharia and rabbinical courts in the process). But the reformers underestimated the importance which many Tunisians accorded to traditional Islamic institutions, and there was the inevitable backlash. Resentment against the Jewish community had surfaced in 1962 and reached a climax with the Six-Day War in 1967, when anti-Jewish riots and the burning of a synagogue sparked a mass exodus of Jews. Jews in independent Tunisia were not allowed to forget the compromises they had made with the French, even though they were not alone in having made them.

Memmi was by then living in France. In The Coloniser and the Colonised he represented the oppression of the Jewish population in Tunisia as part of a larger oppression of the colonised. Jews were natives, just as Muslims were natives. In 1975, in an article entitled ‘Who is an Arab Jew?’ he wrote that taking this position had been a symptom of self-hatred, a denial of his essential Jewishness and that he had overlooked a more continuous history of anti-semitism in Arab lands. The European left, he remarked, was naively or wilfully blind to Arab anti-semitism on the grounds that Arabs were oppressed people: they could not be anti-semites. By 1975, he appears to have gone back to binarisms, but this time the coloniser and the colonised were displaced by the Arab and the Jew.

The Coloniser and the Colonised is a book of its time, which should be read in conjunction with Memmi’s powerful and sensitive works of fiction. This reissue has on its cover a photograph of white US soldiers in armoured vehicles, pointing their guns at – I think – Somali citizens.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences