What are Frantz Fanon's Lessons for Today?Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, radicalism, Algeria, Frantz Fanon, Pan-Africanism, Critical Theory
Killing a European is killing two birds with one stone,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1961, seven years into France’s brutal suppression of the Algerian independence movement. After all, such a killing eliminates “in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free.” Sartre, despised in France for his solidarity with Algerian anti-colonialists, wanted to goad people into seeing the “strip-tease of our humanism.” He wrote, “You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name.”
Sartre wrote these incendiary words in a preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” an anti-colonial treatise by the French and West Indian political philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. Fanon, who had spent years in Algeria agitating for its liberation, was, at the time of the book’s publication, little known and dying from leukemia. He was thirty-six years old. Sartre’s celebrity brought Fanon’s work widespread attention but also colored its initial Western reception. For the book’s sixtieth anniversary, it has been reissued, by Grove, with a new introduction by Cornel West and a previously published one by Homi K. Bhabha. It now emerges as a strikingly ambivalent account of decolonization.
Hannah Arendt criticized Sartre’s preface at length in her essay “On Violence” (1970), but she mostly ignored Fanon’s text, with its many pages on the degeneration of anti-colonial movements and its case notes about psychiatric patients in Algeria. In 1966, a writer in these pages claimed that Fanon’s “arguments for violence” are “spreading amongst the young Negroes in American slums.” A reporter for the Times worried about their effect on “young radical Negro leaders.” Indeed, Stokely Carmichael described Fanon as a mentor, and the founders of the Black Panther Party regarded “The Wretched of the Earth” as essential reading. Those delighting in, or alarmed by, the spectre of armed Black men on American streets barely noticed the specific context of Fanon’s book—his experience of a ferocious Western resistance to decolonization that by the early nineteen-sixties had consumed hundreds of thousands of lives.
In 1954, when France normalized massacre and torture in its Algerian colony, Fanon was working as a psychiatrist in a hospital in Algiers. Confronted in his day job with both French police torturers and their Algerian victims, he became convinced that psychiatric treatment could not work without the destruction of colonialism—an “absolute evil.” He joined the Algerian rebels, with most of whom he shared neither a language nor a religion, and, while moving from country to country in Africa, wrote a series of works on the necessity, the means, and the scope of a revolt by what W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1915, called the “darker nations.”
Fanon’s basic assumption—that colonialism is a machine of “naked violence,” which “only gives in when confronted with greater violence”—had become uncontroversial across Asia and Africa wherever armed mutinies erupted against Western colonialists. In 1959, in Guinea, the killing of striking dockworkers by Portuguese police had persuaded the poet and activist Amilcar Cabral to abandon diplomatic negotiation and embrace guerrilla warfare. A year later, Nelson Mandela, a disciple of Gandhi, led the African National Congress into armed struggle in response to a massacre of Black South Africans in Sharpeville. “Government violence can do only one thing and that is to breed counterviolence,” Mandela said. Fanon presented counterviolence as a kind of therapy for dehumanized natives: “As you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs,” he wrote, “there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being.”
In Fanon’s view, the Western bourgeoisie was “fundamentally racist” and its “bourgeois ideology” of equality and dignity was merely a cover for capitalist-imperialist rapacity. In this, he anticipated the contemporary critique, frequently derided as “woke,” that holds that the West’s material and ideological foundations lie in white supremacy. European imperialists had, he charged, “behaved like real war criminals in the underdeveloped world” for centuries, using “deportation, massacres, forced labor, and slavery” to accumulate wealth. Among their “most heinous” crimes were the rupturing of the Black man’s identity, the destruction of his culture and community, and the poisoning of his inner life with a sense of inferiority. European thought, Fanon wrote, was marked by “a permanent dialogue with itself, an increasingly obnoxious narcissism.”
At the same time, Fanon urged the colonized to “stop accusing” their white masters, and to do what the latter had so conspicuously failed to do: start a “new history of man” that advanced “universalizing values.” In his view, anti-colonial nationalism was only the first step toward a new radical humanism “for Europe, for ourselves and for humanity.” He had already distanced himself from claims to a racially defined identity and culture. The “great white error” of racial arrogance, he had written, ought not to be replaced by the “great black mirage.” “In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored,” he wrote in his first book, “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952). “I will not make myself the man of any past.” He also saw no point in trying to shame people through exposure to the grisly facts of slavery and imperialism. “Am I going to ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century?” he asked. In “The Wretched of the Earth,” he warned the dispossessed against adopting a “psychology dominated by an exaggerated sensibility, sensitivity, and susceptibility.”
As Western imperialists ended their long occupation of Asia and Africa, Fanon became obsessed with the “curse of independence”: the possibility that nationhood in the Global South, though inevitable, could become an “empty shell,” a receptacle for ethnic and tribal antagonisms, ultranationalism, chauvinism, and racism. Certainly, writers of the sixties inspired by “The Wretched of the Earth”—the African novelists Nadine Gordimer, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant, the Guyanese critic Walter Rodney—saw in the book not an incitement to kill white people but a chillingly acute diagnosis of the post-colonial condition: how the West would seek to maintain the iniquitous international order that had made it rich and powerful, and how new ruling classes in post-colonial nations would fail to devise a viable system of their own. One measure of Fanon’s clairvoyance—and the glacial pace of progress—is that, in its sixtieth year, “The Wretched of the Earth” remains a vital guide both to the tenacity of white supremacy in the West and to the moral and intellectual failures of the “darker nations.”