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Frantz Fanon: The Philosophical Revolutionary

THE current year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Frantz Fanon, one of the indispensable figures of the 20th century and a man of exemplary commitments to revolutionary action and human liberation. A thinker who offered original and lasting insights of great complexity, he was also a physician and a psychiatrist who used his scientific knowledge not just for professional purposes but as an instrument for healing victims of oppression and violence.

Born in Martinique and educated in France, Fanon dedicated the closing years of his life to the revolution in Algeria. During the revolutionary waves of the 1960s and early 1970s, he was read and revered by hundreds of thousands across the globe. As those waves receded, as so many of the formerly revolutionary regimes degenerated into dictatorships, and as neoliberal triumphalism marched across the world, it was in the interests of those in power—be they white, black or brown—to consign his memory to obscurity. Scholar-activists of today have a duty to renew the visions, the analyses and the warnings he offered roughly half a century ago.

Fanon’s was a short life, lasting just over 36 years. Given his protean brilliance, one has the impression of a lightning flash, or a series of such flashes over less than a decade, from 1952, when his first masterpiece, Black Skin, White Masks, was published, and 1961, the year of his much-too-early death from leukaemia as well as the publication of his last masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth. Encompassing such flashes of genius, however, is a variety of contexts and involvements—as philosopher, psychiatrist and revolutionary internationalist; and from the Caribbean to Europe to the Maghreb to West Africa—that gives one the sense of something resembling an oceanic immensity. In the following pages we shall be concerned with Fanon mostly as a thinker and less as revolutionary militant even though these two aspects of his life are inseparable. Issues related to his Algerian involvements will inevitably come up, but any serious account of it would make this introductory essay much too long.

Immanuel Wallerstein, the noted American author and theorist, knew him and held lengthy discussions with him in Accra, where Fanon had been sent as envoy by the Gouvernement Provisoire de la Republique Algerienne (GPRA) in the course of the Algerian revolution. We can take his characterisation of Fanon as emblematic of how difficult it is to encapsulate the complexity of Fanon in a few words. Wallerstein writes: “He might rather be characterised as one part Marxist Freudian, one part Freudian Marxist and most part totally committed to revolutionary liberation movements.” Wallerstein is absolutely correct about Fanon’s total commitment to revolutionary liberation during the closing years of his life, a matter to which we shall return. However, he is only partially right about Fanon’s purported “Freudian” and “Marxist” orientations. I will ignore the issue of Freud here but that of Marx needs some comment.

Class, nation & race

Marxism was very much a part of the air that Fanon breathed through his formative years in Martinique in the company of such people as Aime Cesaire, the great poet; during his years in France and his association with people like Henri Jeanson and Jean-Paul Sartre; and in those particular circles of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) with which he was most closely associated. He quotes and paraphrases Marx freely in his writings, and even the title of his legendary last book, which he dictated when he knew he was going to die soon, was taken from the Internationale, the proletarian anthem of the world communist movement. However, Marxism for him was refracted through many a prism. Philosophically, his brand of Marxism was suffused with Hegelian Dialectics, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology as well as the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, especially the latter. The great philosophical eminence behind his youthful book, Black Skin, White Masks, is Hegel, not Marx. Secondly, he levelled the same charge against Marxism and communism that many other writers of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American origins, notably his friends Cesaire and Richard Wright, had brought up. They had argued that colonialism was constitutive of the capitalist modern world, that racism was the constitutive ideology and practice of colonialism, and that the philosophical and political traditions descended from Marxism did not take racism seriously enough, as something intrinsic to the social relations of capitalism and imperialism on the global scale. Fanon further asserted that in the political context of colonialism, the category of nation had primacy over the category of class, and that in the socio-economic structure of African/Caribbean societies (he sometimes said all colonial societies) the peasantry and the lumpen proletariat were more revolutionary than the proletariat per se; in this view of the lumpen proletariat in particular, he ran quite counter to virtually every tendency within Marxism. All in all, one can say that Fanon was still in search of a coherent theory, of which Marxism would be a major component, when death cut short his brilliant quest. The brevity of his life stands in sharp contrast to the variety of his contexts and involvements, intellectual as well as political. Here we shall first offer a brief sketch of his life and will then comment on certain themes and categories that are fundamental to his magisterial thought.

Early influences

Born in Martinique and with Aime Cesaire as his mentor and close friend, Afro-Caribbean philosophical and literary traditions were Fanon’s first and lasting intellectual nursery that included such outstanding figures as Edourd Glissant, Wilson Harris, George Padmore, C.L.R. James and the brilliant, albeit little-known, Haitian ethnologist Jean-Price Mars. These influences inclined him toward the Left quite early in his youth, reinforced by his encounter with that part of the Afro-American literary world of the United States that was represented at the time by such authors as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Together, this whole range of writers gave Fanon a keen sense of the contradiction between the philosophical and cultural grandeur of European bourgeois civilisation on the one hand and, on the other, the triple savagery of slavery, colonialism and racism that the same civilisation had perpetrated across the globe. If the themes of his Black Skin, White Masks (1952) overlapped with those of Cesaire’s landmark poem Return to My Native Land (1939; 1947) and his subsequent Discourse on Colonialism (1955), it equally converges with Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen! (1957).

That intellectual formation was also grounded for Fanon in the actual experience of the colonialists’ pervasive racism not only in Martinique—a colony which the ruling French nevertheless described as an outlying “province” of France—but even in the French Free Forces that had been assembled under Charles De Gaulle’s leadership against the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, and in which Fanon had enlisted at the age of 18 as an opponent of fascism. Upon his return to Martinique in 1945, he worked for the electoral campaign of Cesaire, who was running on a communist ticket for the position of a deputy from Martinique in the first National Assembly of the French Fourth Republic. As these facts would testify, Fanon’s radical stance—anti-Nazi, with communist sympathies—and his belief that one has to fight actively for what one believes and preaches were already well formed by the time he took his baccalaureate and sailed to France for higher education.

In France, Fanon studied literature, drama and philosophy, attending lectures of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, illustrious philosopher and close associate of Sartre with whom Fanon was to establish a close association later. This is when he encountered Hegel’s phenomenology and dialectics as well as various strands of existentialism, modes of philosophy that modulated all his later thinking. Fanon then went on to study medicine and psychiatry, qualifying as a psychiatrist in 1951 and then doing his residency under the radical Catalan psychiatrist Francois Tosquelles, famous for studying the role of culture in psychopathology—a seminal influence not only on Fanon’s first book in which he studies the pathologies of racism in the Caribbean and the wider African Diaspora but also on his psychiatric work in Algeria after his appointment as chef de service at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in 1953.

Three things need to be emphasised here. First, when Fanon arrived in Algeria, at the age of 28 and only a year after the publication of his first book, he was already a man of wide and precocious intellectual culture, equally at home in European philosophy and Afro-Caribbean thought as well as the intellectual linkages between Africa and the African Diaspora, quite aside from his professional training in psychiatry and psychopathology. Second, until he arrived in Algeria his political passion against colonialism and racism were focussed almost entirely on how these affected “Black” people, whose origins were in “Black” Africa, with whom his own identity as a very dark-skinned “Negro” was profoundly enmeshed. In Algeria, however, he saw victims of colonial racism and violence who were not “Black”, and once the war of Algerian independence began, he encountered a colonial violence far more extreme than anything he had seen in Martinique. He quickly learned that colour, per se, was secondary in structures of colonial racism; the “Arab” could be stigmatised just as brutally and contemptuously as the “Black”. Third, and although he had already displayed political inclinations, he came to Algeria not for political but for professional reasons.

His initial project at the Blida Hospital was simply to train nurses and interns in the kind of socio-therapy he had learned from Tosquelles and to investigate the cultural backgrounds of his patients in the course of his own psychiatric practice. It was in the course of such investigations that he began to see how deep the psychological wounds are that the colonial system inflicts upon its subjects.

Contact with FLN

Soon thereafter, he began to see victims of torture almost as a routine matter in his practice, discovered at his hospital an underground network associated with the FLN, and came into contact with the FLN himself, initially in his capacity as a psychiatrist. As one who was philosophically committed to an authentic existence in which thought and action had to be organically united, he found it personally untenable to remain an official in colonial service in the midst of a revolution, and in the midst, moreover, of the wholesale colonial machinery of torture. He chose to serve the revolution, instead, and resigned from colonial service in the summer of 1956 and joined the revolution soon thereafter.

This is a brief background to the kind of man Fanon had become by the time he became a full-time revolutionary, at the age of 31, and to the premises of the thinking that went into the composition of his eventual masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, five years later, on the eve of his death. Let it be said, though, even about the leukaemia that killed him, at the young age of 36, that he contracted the disease in the course of his exhausting trip across the Sahara as a part of a team trying to open a third front for the revolution and its supply lines. In this sense, he died for the revolution that he had sought to serve with his life.

We shall now turn to some of the key themes in Fanon’s thought.

Nationalism, a two-edged sword

We shall go very much astray in our reading of Fanon generally, and certainly on the issue of nationalism, if we do not recognise that, for all his rhetorical flights of fancy, he is first and foremost a dialectician. Greatly simplifying matters, this means at least two things. First, that reality, conceived as a totality, is comprised of internal contradictions, so that, in order to comprehend a reality, one has to first grasp those contradictions. Second, that things—politics, society, history, the human subject—are never static but always in motion. To grasp a reality, one has to grasp not only what it is but also what it is in the process of becoming. What is not only necessary but even of absolute positive value in one set of circumstances may become a fetter and a menace in a later, different set of circumstances. These analytic principles are fundamental to understanding what Fanon says about national formation and national consciousness, about violence, about racial identities and racial pathologies, and a host of other issues. Otherwise, it would appear that he is always contradicting himself, saying one thing in one place and its opposite elsewhere. This is particularly so thanks to Fanon’s emphatic, oracular and at times highly metaphorical style, not so much in his writings on Algeria and the African revolution but very much so in the two books, the first and the last, that are read most widely.

When I first read the superb third chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, entitled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, I was bewildered, even dismayed. I was myself a product of Indian nationalism, and I was reading the chapter in 1969, a particularly charged historical moment. On the one hand, there had been murderous imperialist assaults on nationalist regimes: Patrice Lumumba murdered in 1961, Soekarno overthrown in 1965 in one of the great bloodbaths of the 20th century, Kwame Nkrumah overthrown by another Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored coup the next year in 1966, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Arab secular nationalism defeated by the Israeli invasion the year after that, in 1967.

On the other hand, glorious wars of national liberation were raging across Asia and Africa, notably in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Portuguese colonies. Fanon’s dire and apparently pessimistic warnings about the pitfalls of the national consciousness were not easy to digest—warnings that came when he knew he was dying and had nothing to lose by speaking his mind, from inside the contradictions of the Algerian revolution itself. He named no particular countries but one could sense that he was summing up what he had himself witnessed, not just in West Africa but in the Maghreb as well, and most specifically in the internecine struggles inside the Algerian FLN.

Among all the revolutionary thinkers actively involved in national liberation movements, Fanon was the first and the most lucid in grasping the fact that nationalism itself was a two-edged sword: absolutely indispensable in uniting the whole people in the fight to overthrow colonial rule and creating a national solidarity out of various religious, linguistic, regional and ethnic groups inside the national territory; but also an instrumentality that could be used for a transfer of power from the colonial masters not to the colonised people but to the newly emergent national ruling class, whether that class was bourgeois or merely bureaucratic. In the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon describes that kind of independence as a process of “nationalising the robbery of the nation”.

Furthermore, the very conditions of armed struggle against colonialism require a high degree of centralisation of command in the army of liberation as well as in the leading political organisation and the counter-state that it organises (FLN, ALN (National Liberation Army) and GPRA in the Algerian case). However, precisely this centralisation, so necessary in times of war and revolution, carries within it all the potential of giving rise, after the revolution, not to a popular democracy but to a one-party dictatorship. This theoretical postulate was already there in Rosa Luxemburg’s dispute with Lenin. This, then, is the dialectic and the dilemma: nationalism is an unconditionally progressive ideology in the struggle against colonialism but can also be invoked in consolidating the rule of a new indigenous ruling class in the name of the nation, while the revolutionary organisation itself carries within it the seeds of a counter-revolution unless the highest degree of vigilance is observed and practical solutions found for the dilemma.

Power to the people

Although Fanon scarcely used Marxist vocabulary in dealing with such issues, he instinctively proposed a classically Marxist solution: extreme decentralisation of authority and construction of organs of popular power right down to the village level, during the revolution itself and, even more so, immediately after the revolution. In Marxist theory, this is called “the withering away of the state”, that is, the proposition that the task of revolution is not to replace the bourgeois state with another kind of state but to distribute the functions of the state among the people as widely as possible: the idea, in other words, that any socialism will necessarily become a bureaucratic autocracy if “the withering away of the state” does not proceed, from the very outset, alongside the construction of socialism itself. “The emancipation of the working class can be accomplished only by the working class itself,” Marx had famously said. Thinking in the context of largely non-industrialised colonies, Fanon extended this dictum to say that colonial rule may be overthrown by a revolutionary army and party but real national liberation can be accomplished only through the exercise of the power, vision and work of the whole people, the peasantry and the wageless proletarianised mass in particular.

Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about the Stalin period had come in 1956, just as the Algerian revolution was taking off and Fanon was committing himself to it. The world communist movement lost numerous intellectuals in the wake of those revelations, including Cesaire, who resigned his lifelong membership in the Communist Party as a result. Fanon could not have been indifferent to all that. Meanwhile, he was also witnessing the embryonic emergence of one-party formations as well as centralised, charismatic leaderships within the anti-colonial movements across Africa and the Arab world. His prophetic warnings about the “pitfalls of national consciousness” were located within that crucible.

Concerning Violence

When The Wretched of the Earth was first published, its initial popularity, not only in France or elsewhere in Europe but also in such faraway places as Brazil, was owed largely to Sartre’s preface, which was notable for a virtual avalanche of words, a hyperbolic tendency Sartre was to acknowledge later, and an almost exclusive focus on the opening chapter of the book, “Concerning Violence”. He thus tended not only to greatly reduce the range of arguments in the book as a whole but also to offer a somewhat one-sided account of Fanon’s own very complex argument on the issue of violence, comparing him favourably with Sorel and portraying him as something of a prophet of unremitting anti-colonial violence. The book’s slow ascent to popularity in the U.S. began with the publication of the English translation by Grove Press in 1965; it reached an iconic status around 1970, in the heyday of campus rebellions, inner-city riots, black nationalist movements and formation of the Black Panther Party. In this milieu, Fanon was misread twice over; his Black Skin, White Masks was regarded as an angry manifesto of Afro-American racial identity—with a Back-to-Africa cultural-revivalist message grafted on to it—while a singular emphasis on the chapter “On Violence” was interpreted as a licence to launch armed struggles against the U.S. state in American cities, with the mass of the ghettoised black population seen as the true revolutionary agent.

Those earlier misreadings of Fanon are part of the burden one carries when attempting to renew his thought now. Decades later, the prevailing context today is entirely different. For Fanon, revolutionary violence gains its legitimacy not from abstract theoretical reflection but from the actuality of the revolution itself. No such actuality exists in our time, even though the world has become immensely more violent and in even greater need of revolutionary transformation. In our time virtually all the organised political violence comes from the Right so that in most Left and liberal discourses non-violence has come to be regarded as a Moral Absolute—not a strategic requirement under specific circumstances but the very horizon of permissible moral action—thus leaving the field of political violence, even theoretically and conceptually, to the various forces of the Right. In this atmosphere, charging Fanon with condoning violence of any kind amounts to charging him with at least some extreme kind of right-wing romanticism if not with irrationality, pathology and a fascistic tendency as well. It is important not to get intimidated by this kind of self-righteous, upper-crust bullying and set the record straight.

For some two hundred years—between the French Revolution and the liberation of Vietnam, let us say—the legitimacy of revolutionary violence was taken for granted on the part of the revolutionary Left, all across the globe, in all its parties and splinters. It was simply assumed by all that the capitalist state, and the colonial state even more so, was a structure of violence that would not concede power without using all means at its disposal, so that you either compromised and accepted their domination under a new neocolonial dispensation, or you fought to the bitter end. This was something of a “common sense” in the age-old historic context Fanon had inherited as a thinker and militant. The Chinese and Cuban revolutions were recent events and wars of national liberation were still raging in Vietnam and its vicinity when Fanon published his book, very much as a militant of the Algerian revolution. What was at issue for him was not violence in general but revolutionary violence, as the opposite of—a dialectical overcoming of—colonial violence, and not only the colonial violence of his own time but also the accumulated violences of colonialism throughout its history, which had left a deeply mutilating imprint on the society, economy and psychology of the colonised.

Two caveats have to be entered at this point. First, although Fanon tends to speak of colonialism in general, what he actually says applies much more to the extremities of settler colonialism, from South Africa to Palestine, and needs to be read, first and foremost, in the Algerian context. Second, it applies to revolutionary movements for national liberation where a complete overthrow of the system is sought, as in Vietnam. For the rest, a transition from colonial rule to a state of the indigenous ruling classes has often been negotiated with minimum violence from the side of the colonised against the coloniser, as we well know from the tradition of the genteel nationalism of the Gandhi-Nehru variety (violence against each other, or what Fanon called “fraternal bloodbaths”, is of course a different matter).

Fanon does not romanticise the colonised (“the colonised man is an envious man”), and except for a couple of rhetorical flourishes, he can hardly be accused of glorifying revolutionary violence. Most of the chapter “Concerning Violence” is in fact devoted not to violence ensuing from the colonised but to the compromises and betrayals by the indigenous elites and the various kinds of violence exercised by the colonised. As a revolutionary militant and as an expert in psychopathology, Fanon knew perfectly well that the colonised are capable not only of revolutionary violence against their oppressors but also against themselves and each other: repressed aggression, self-mutilation, “fraternal bloodbaths” among groups and tribes, refuge into religion and the occult, etc. The answering, organised violence that comes with the anti-colonial uprising is described as simple historical necessity, in almost regretful tones:

“The settler’s work is to make even the dreams of liberty impossible for the native. The native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler. On the logical plane, the Manichaeism of the settler produces the Manichaeism of the native…. This then is the correspondence, term by term, between two trains of reasoning.”

This formulation of opposing logics—the perception that the coloniser’s brutalities can brutalise the thought of the colonised as well—is then supplemented with a further perception: “The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the colonialist… find out that the iniquitous fact of exploitation can wear a black face or an Arab one….” Fanon’s hatred of the coloniser is fully matched by his contempt for the exploitative indigenous elite.

Race & Humanism

Fanon was a revolutionary, but a philosophical revolutionary. Racialisation of self and society, of the colonised as well as the coloniser, was Fanon’s basic existential experience in the little island of Martinique as much as in the metropolitan city of Paris (“the city that never stops talking of itself”, as Cocteau once put it). But his deepest philosophical and moral commitments were to universalist humanism, or what he called “the universality inherent in the human condition”.

Keenly aware of the psychopathologies among the colonised, the option of a complacent wallowing in black identity—or any other kind of identity politics—was not available to him. Nor did he have any taste for uncritical cultural revivalism: “The culture put into capsules, which has vegetated since the foreign domination, is re-valorised. It is not re-conceived, grasped anew, dynamised from within. It is shouted.” On the contrary, Fanon admonishes, “When the colonised intellectual writing for his people uses the past he must do so with the intention of opening up a future.” Yet, like his mentor Cesaire, he also knew that the great European traditions of the Radical Enlightenment and High Humanism had been shipwrecked long ago, on the rough rocky shores of capitalism and colonialism. Hence his declaration on the very first page of Black Skin, White Masks that he writes “for a new humanism”, quite aware, perhaps, of Marx’s declaration in 1844 that “communism was . . . a humanism” and Sartre’s declaration, roughly a century later, in 1947, that “existentialism is a humanism”. But what kind of universalist humanism, in the teeth of colonialist dehumanisation, exploitation and racism? Fanon addresses this question not in the terms of political economy but of philosophy and social psychology.

In a certain sense, Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, is an enraged meditation on the pathologies of colonialism, on both sides of the divide between the colonised and the coloniser, through categories of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind, and especially the Master-Slave Dialectic. We can just compare two brief statements. Hegel: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and only by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” And Fanon: “Man is human only to the extent that he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognised by him.… It is on that other being, on recognition by that other being, that his own human worth and being depend.” For Fanon, as for Hegel, true recognition/acknowledgement is a relation of reciprocity, and the ontological dilemma Hegel seeks to resolve is whether such reciprocal relation is possible between entities that encounter each other in relation of not equality but hierarchy. Fanon assumes that the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised is one of extreme exploitation and inequality in material life, hence devoid of any possibility of reciprocal recognition of equal human worth in the course of the moral encounter. Assured of his own superiority, the coloniser exists only for himself, as master of the measure that determines what it means to be white or non-white, European or non-European; the coloniser, in other words, is the monopolist of social meaning in colonial situations. As soon as the colonised person tries to have a sense of himself, he is interrupted by the thought of how he is seen by the colonial master. As Fanon puts it: “Not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” Fanon contends that individuals and collectivities so unequal, so socially and psychologically alienated (in the Marxist sense) are simply incapable of the reciprocal recognition of equal worth without which no universalist humanism is conceivable.

Revolutions that abolish histories of race, class and empire are the precondition for an authentic recognition that can reach into “the open door of every consciousness”. This is Fanon’s fundamental philosophical justification for national liberation struggles and revolutionary praxis: “The liberation struggle does not restore to national culture its formal values and configurations. The struggle, which aims at a fundamental redistribution of relations between men, cannot leave intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture. After the struggle is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism but also the demise of the colonised.”

And, the imagination of a usable future: “Those Black people and White people will be disalienated who refuse to let themselves be sealed in the materialised Tower of the Past.”

Then, in the famous closing pages of Black Skin, we encounter a final affirmation of human freedom—a retrievable humanism—beyond exploitation, beyond race, and with an extraordinary orientation toward the future:

“. . . I, as a man of colour, to the extent that it becomes possible for me to exist absolutely, do not have the right to back myself into a world of retroactive reparations. I, a man of colour, want only this: That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man ceases forever…. The Negro is not. Any more than the White Man.”

We thus hear echoes of the young Marx (“that the tool never possess the man”) in the irrepressible revolutionary desire of a colonised man, looking forward to the supersession of the Master-Slave Dialectic altogether. Universalist humanism, indeed! But not as some patrimonial gift from Europe’s philosophical past. Rather, as a virtue that can only be achieved in consequence of liberation from capital and empire. For Fanon, the struggle for that liberation itself gives us a glimpse into that future.

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