Frantz Fanon’s Enduring Legacy

 Frantz Fanon’s Enduring Legacy

 

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.”
 
Fanon’s suspicions about the Global South’s élites came from his own tormented experience as a Westernized Black man who grew up oblivious of his Blackness. Born into a middle-class family in Martinique in 1925, Fanon had been a proud citizen of the French Republic. He grew up reading Montesquieu and Voltaire, and, like many Black men from French colonies, fought with the Allied forces during the Second World War. Wounded in Alsace, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
 
It was only in postwar France, where he went, in 1946, to study psychiatry, that he discovered he was little more than a “dirty nigger” in the eyes of whites—a “savage” of the kind he had previously assumed lived only in Africa. In “Black Skin, White Masks,” he narrates his experience of a formative trauma common to many anti-colonial leaders and thinkers. In his case, it was a little girl in Lyon exclaiming, “Maman, look, a Negro; I’m scared!” Being “overdetermined from without,” as he described it, shocked him out of any complacent assumptions about equality, liberty, and fraternity. “I wanted quite simply to be a man among men,” Fanon wrote, but the “white gaze, the only valid one,” had “fixed” him, forcing him to become shamefully aware of his Black body, and of debasing white assumptions about his history, defined by “cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders.”
 
Although Fanon understood the political and economic realities that reduced Black men to “crushing objecthood,” his psychiatric training made him sensitive to the psychological power of the images imposed by enslavers on the enslaved. Fanon knew that Black men who internalized these images would find it impossible to escape their colonized selves in a world made by and for white men. White men had not merely conquered vast territories, radically reorganizing societies and exploiting populations. They also claimed to represent a humane civilization devoted to personal liberty and equipped with the superior tools of science, reason, and individual enterprise. “The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else,” the African narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River” remarks. “But at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.” Naturally, “they got both the slaves and the statues.”
 
Fanon wrote about how the Black man, cowed by the colonists’ unprecedented mixture of greed, righteousness, and military efficacy, tended to internalize the demoralizing judgment delivered on him by the white gaze. “I start suffering from not being a white man,” Fanon wrote. “So I will try quite simply to make myself white.” But mimicry could be a cure worse than the disease, since it reinforced the existing racial hierarchy, thereby further devastating the Black man’s self-esteem. Inspired by Sartre, who had argued that the anti-Semite’s gaze created the Jew, Fanon concluded that Blackness was another constructed and imposed identity. “The black man is not,” he wrote in the closing pages of “Black Skin, White Masks.” “No more than the white man.”
This argument also underpins the political programs that Fanon proposes in “The Wretched of the Earth,” in which he argues that, because colonialism is “a systematized negation of the other,” it “forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: Who am I in reality?” By the time he wrote the book, however, his focus had shifted. “The misfortune of the colonized African masses, exploited, subjugated, is first of a vital, material order,” he wrote, against which the grievances of educated Black men like him did not appear as urgent. In a withering review, published in 1959, of Richard Wright’s “White Man, Listen” (1957), Fanon wrote that “the drama of consciousness of a westernized Black, torn between his white culture and his negritude,” while painful, does not “kill anyone.”
 
For much of “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon raises an issue that he thought Wright, obsessed with the existential crises of literary intellectuals, had ignored: how “to give back to the peoples of Africa the initiative of their history, and by which means.” Distrustful of the “Westernized” intelligentsia and urban working classes in the nationalist movements fighting for liberation, he saw the African peasantry as the true wretched of the earth, and the main actor in the drama of decolonization. According to Fanon, “In colonial countries only the peasantry is revolutionary,” since “it has nothing to lose and everything to gain” and, unlike bourgeois leaders, brooks “no compromise, no possibility of concession.”
 
Fanon did not seem to realize that he shared the indignities of racism and his self-appointed tasks with many anti-colonial leaders and thinkers. Gandhi, after all, had once been as loyal to the British Empire as Fanon was to the French, and, while working as a lawyer in South Africa in the late nineteenth century, had likewise been racially humiliated into a lasting distrust of the identity politics of whiteness. So, too, did Gandhi’s vision of political self-determination draw on a need to heal the wounds inflicted by white-supremacist arrogance. His concept of nonviolence fashioned a new way of thinking and feeling, one in which human good would not be defined only by Western males.
 
Many other Asian and African leaders of decolonization had a similar intellectual and political awakening. Educated in Western-style institutions and inhabiting the white man’s world, these men were often the first in their countries to be directly exposed to crude racial prejudice. Renouncing their white masks, their failed attempts at mimicry, they took it upon themselves to rouse and mobilize their destitute and illiterate compatriots, who had passively suffered the depredations and insults of white colonialists. As members of a tiny privileged élite, they saw it as their duty to devise non-exploitative economic and social systems for their people, and foster a culture in which alienating imitation of the powerful white man gives way to pride and confidence in local traditions.
 
It was Fanon’s broader experience of the colonial world in the nineteen-fifties that refined his political consciousness. In 1954, a year after moving to Algeria to take up a psychiatric residency, he witnessed the beginning of the Algerian revolution. Within a couple of years, his opposition to the colonial crackdown got him thrown out of the country. He joined the revolutionary movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, and, from a new base, in Tunis, travelled across Africa—Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Guinea, Congo—as a representative of the F.L.N. and its provisional government-in-exile.
 
By this time, Africa and Asia had manifested a range of ideological alternatives to racial capitalism and imperialism: the peasant Communism of Mao Zedong, in China; in Indonesia, Sukarno’s brand of Islam-inflected socialism, Pancasila; Kwame Nkrumah’s Positive Action protests, in Ghana. Meanwhile, the Cold War was drastically curtailing the autonomy of newly liberated nations. To protect their interests, Western powers were replacing costly physical occupations with military and economic bullying. They cast about for collaborators among élites and sometimes overthrew and murdered less tractable leaders. One of the most prominent victims of a Western assassination plot was a friend and an exact contemporary of Fanon: Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of Congo, who was killed in 1961. Political and economic incapacity in many fledgling nation-states also forced their leaders to seek help from their former overlords. A few months after Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika gained independence from Britain, their leaders sought the British Army’s help in suppressing mutinies over low pay.
 
Oddly, “The Wretched of the Earth,” published during this partial transfer of power from white to Black and brown hands, barely mentions Asia or much of Africa, and has nothing at all to say about the Middle East. Fanon appears not to have intimately known any of the societies he travelled through, not even Algeria. Yet, by reflecting scrupulously on his experience as a powerless Black man in exile, he was able to see through the Cold War’s moralizing rhetoric to the insidious new modes of social and political coercion. It was probably during his time in Nkrumah’s Ghana that he developed his view of single-party rule: “the modern form of the bourgeois dictatorship stripped of mask, makeup, and scruples, cynical in every aspect.” The formulation has, in the past six decades, accurately described the political systems in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.
 
Fanon also presciently described the politically explosive gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty, and the toxic consequences of inequitable development, even in countries he never visited. Those bemused by the spectacle of an educated middle class and a globalized business élite devoted to India’s Narendra Modi, a far-right autocrat, can find a broad outline of this situation in “The Wretched of the Earth”:
 
The national bourgeoisie increasingly turns its back on the interior, on the realities of a country gone to waste, and looks toward the former metropolis and the foreign capitalists who secure its services. Since it has no intention of sharing its profits with the people, it discovers the need for a popular leader whose dual role will be to stabilize the regime and to perpetuate the domination of the bourgeoisie.
 
The defects and omissions in Fanon’s book are also revealing. His relentlessly male perspective reduced liberation from colonialism to the frustrations and desires of men like him. Proposing that the native’s virility and will to power could counter the violence of the colonialist, he reinforced a hypermasculinist discourse of domination. Not surprisingly, politics remained a vicious affair in Algeria for decades after the French departed.
 
As an heir to the secular French Enlightenment, and seemingly unaware of non-Francophone cultural traditions, Fanon was blind to the creative possibilities of the past—those deployed, say, by Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia, in their battles for survival against logging and mining corporations. Conversely, his theory about the revolutionary potential of African peasants now seems all too clearly the romantic fantasy of an uprooted, self-distrusting intellectual. In Africa, the urban working classes turned out to be far more important to decolonization than the peasantry.
 
Countries in which peasants proved crucial to national liberation, such as China and Vietnam, came no closer to starting a new history of man. Contrary to what Fanon ardently hoped, even the strongest post-colonial nations, such as India and China, are “obsessed with catching up” with their historical tormentors, and have engendered, in this imitative process, their own rhetoric of obnoxious narcissism.
 
Still, Fanon’s misgivings about decolonization and his insights into the connections between psychic and socioeconomic change have never seemed more prophetic and salutary than in today’s racially charged climate. Nonwhite people’s growing demands for dignity, together with China’s ascendancy, have destabilized a Western self-image constructed during decades when white men alone seemed to make the modern world. This weakening of imperial-era authority has resulted in a proliferation of existential anxieties, marked by a heightened exploitation of culture-war talking points in politics and the media. Thus, attempts to reckon with the long-neglected legacies of slavery and imperialism collide with cults of Churchill and the Confederacy, and critical race theory becomes an electorally potent bogeyman for the right. Meanwhile, as Éric Zemmour, a demagogue of Algerian Jewish ancestry, raises the banner of white supremacy and Islamophobia in France, and Taliban fanatics inherit a devastated Afghanistan from retreating Western powers, decolonization seems far from being triumphantly concluded. Rather, it resembles the bleakly ambiguous and open-ended transition depicted by Fanon. Sixty years after its publication, “The Wretched of the Earth” reads increasingly like a dying Black man’s admission of a genuine impossibility: of moving beyond the world made by white men. ♦