When the Khmer Rouge embarked on their genocidal campaign against the Cambodian people in 1975, they aspired to mold Cambodia into a self-sufficient, socialist, agrarian society, emancipated from all foreign influence. Their mission was to usher in a “Year Zero,” which would return the country to an imagined golden age of peasant agriculture and upend society, giving the least privileged power over the most and punishing educated city dwellers, whom they believed had succumbed to the corrupting forces of Western capitalist culture.
If the Khmer Rouge were around today, some of the West’s left-wing commentariat might well applaud their actions as “decolonization.”
The term “decolonization” was historically used to refer to the process through which imperial nations relinquished control over their former colonies, thereby enabling them to attain sovereignty. This happened with the dissolution of the Spanish Empire in the nineteenth century; the disintegration of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires after World War I; and the demise of the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Japanese empires following World War II.
As former colonies gained independence, they also began to develop their own cultures and intellectual traditions, and the academic discipline of postcolonialism sprang up to study this phenomenon. Postcolonialist scholars asserted that European political and economic dominance was accompanied by a Eurocentric perspective that portrayed Western civilization as the pinnacle of human achievement, while unfairly disparaging indigenous culture and knowledge as primitive. In the former colonies, independence often resulted not only in the establishment of new national political and legal systems but also in the revision of educational curricula and a shift in focus away from the Western canon, which featured figures like Mozart, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hobbes, and Locke.
However, decolonization—whether political, economic, cultural, or intellectual—can go well beyond all of that. For its most zealous advocates, the end goal has always been a tumultuous revolutionary struggle aimed at restoring a precolonial culture and society—essentially bringing about a Year Zero.
Consider the words of the progenitor of the decolonization movement, Frantz Fanon, in his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth. Drawing inspiration from Marxist and Leninist ideologies, Fanon adapts the concepts of class struggle and social justice to the context of racialized colonialism. Decolonization, for Fanon, necessitates political and intellectual upheaval and the complete upending of the social hierarchy. This “is always a violent phenomenon”:
For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence.