Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Abstract and Keywords
Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a handbook for developing anticolonial revolutionary consciousness. It offers an analysis of the structures created by colonialism that need to be overcome, and predicts the political distortions that might occur in postcolonial regimes. All three of these themes involve a discussion of structural and interpersonal violence as a central force in politics. Fanon’s political theory traces the interconnected nature of economic, institutional, and psychological racialized violence that undergirds modern global relations. This chapter explores Fanon’s historical analysis of decolonization, emphasizing the difficulty of achieving individual freedom and the pitfalls of collective and violent struggle. Furthermore, Fanon’s volume predicts the growth of new forms of imperialism, and the continued economic exploitation of former colonies.
Frantz Fanon was born on Martinique in 1925, and as the son of a customs inspector he was part of the petit bourgeoisie on the island. This class was taught in both public and private to see themselves as absolutely French; Fanon reported that when he misbehaved at home he was told to “stop acting like a nigger” (1967, 191). During the Second World War, he joined the army to defend Free France. After the war he started a dentistry program in Paris, but then left the city to pursue a medical degree in Lyon. During his military years and medical training, Fanon came to see, gradually, that his citizenship was not the universal one that the French had promised.1 He started exploring themes of racial consciousness, personal identity, and colonial relationships in writing, culminating in the publication of Black Skin, White Masks (1952). This set him on a path of exploring the alienation that results from colonial relationships, and the psychological mechanisms that both strain against and maintain this system of oppression. Then, in a remarkable transition, in 1956 Fanon liquidated his ambiguous identity—colonized, black, French, Martinican, doctor—and became Algerian. Albert Memmi has emphasized the bizarreness of this decision: “A man who has never set foot in a country decides within a rather brief span of time that this people will be his people, their country his country until his death, even though he knows neither its language nor its civilization and has no particular ties to it” (1973, 22).
Memmi overstates his case since Fanon had spent the three previous years in Algeria, working in the psychiatric hospital at Blida from 1953–56, treating the victims of French counter-insurgency as well as broken Frenchmen waging the war. This experience led to his commitment to anticolonial struggle and the project of Algerian Independence. He would spend the rest of his very short life organizing and writing in support of it, before dying in 1961. The Wretched of the Earth (TWE) is an analysis of the Algerian struggle and bears the stamp of Fanon’s commitment to it, as he refers to Algerians as “we” continuously throughout the text. Conceptually, it reveals the position of an outsider, as Fanon’s text illuminates the transnational struggle for decolonization by repudiating a purely nationalist or personal perspective. His personal rebirth as an Algerian helps provide the key to understanding his assertion that “Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men” (36). Yet his transnational past made it possible for him to write a more generalized narrative of decolonization as a historical process. Fanon’s personal history helped to provide this exceptional perspective on what was unfolding as a furious political event in colony after colony at this particular historical juncture.
TWE is one of two anticolonial texts most likely to achieve inclusion in the syllabi of standard courses in the field of political theory. The other is Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (2009). The texts’ popularity may have something to do with the fact that they pair together as alternative routes to similar destinations, decolonization. Fanon argued, “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder” (36). Fanon and Gandhi believed decolonization had two aspects. The first was a highly critical approach to the culture, systems of knowledge, and assumptions created by the colonizing power: a conceptual dis-ordering. Second, a total refashioning of colonized subjects and their self-conceptions was necessary if countries were to achieve meaningful self-determination. Decolonization—or overcoming rule from outside forces—means interrupting the logic of that political order and also developing the resources to rule from within.2
The first step in overcoming colonial orders is the radical questioning of the logic, knowledge, and attitudes that accompanied colonizers. Gandhi points out the importance of standing outside of European civilization in order to repudiate European colonization: “Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it” (2009, 34). The proposal to stand outside of the current order and question its assumptions is a stance not unfamiliar in the genre of political theory. Nietzsche and Rousseau were other radical naysayers who attempted to unearth the foundations of the thinkers who had preceded them, but who nonetheless have been welcomed into the club. On one level, Fanon’s work fits into the theoretical tradition of exposing the connections between one group’s power and the knowledge that group produces. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979) is the most influential exposition of Fanon’s basic insight that the structure of European knowledge is deeply complicit in the violence of colonialism. It would be hard to overstate the influence that Fanon’s work has played in the development of postcolonial theories of epistemology, identity, and culture.3 And it is largely through cross-pollination from this scholarship that Fanon’s work has found its way into the oeuvre of contemporary political theory, although recently this has started to change.4
Glen Sean Coulthard (2014) has taken Fanon’s work on identity and revolutionary consciousness and applied it to the struggle for indigenous sovereignty in Canada, assembling many lessons from TWE to sort through the alternatives for overcoming domination. Neil Roberts (2015) investigates freedom and slavery through a historical analysis of slave revolts in the Caribbean and Latin America. Sharing Fanon’s emphasis on locating particular struggles in time and space and yet resisting the temptation to assume that freedom can be achieved simply by moving, Roberts argues, “Freedom is not a place; it is a state of being” (11). Finally, Achille Mbembe extends Fanon’s prophetic work about the potential disfunctions of postcolonial regimes in On the Postcolony (2001) and offers a stunning historical assessment of how the category of blackness has and continues to organize the modern world in Critique of Black Reason (2017). Robyn Marasco (2015) locates Fanon as an important contributor to the Frankfurt School tradition, arguing that his work provides an essential militant and political element to critical theory.
There are two different translations of TWE into English. The first was by Constance Farrington (1963), who articulated and embraced the revolutionary significance of the work. In 2004, a new translation by Richard Philcox was issued to correct many of the more egregious translation errors (and typographical errors) in the Farrington translation. But the new translation also updates the language of Fanon for “the contemporary audience,” for example, using the term “the colonized” as opposed to “native.” Gibson (2007) has provided an excellent rumination on the two translations, pointing out that the difference between the two texts naturally reflects their historical context. Farrington’s 1963 Fanon is a revolutionary figure, while Philcox’s 2004 Fanon is a founder of postcolonial studies.5
TWE contributes to many central debates in political theory such as the relationship between freedom and context, the difficult distinction between personal and collective analyses, and finding political strategy that is both effectual and liberating. Let me shape this analysis with another of Sartre’s comments: “Fanon is the first since Engels to bring the processes of history into the clear light of day” (14). Fanon wants us to see decolonization as more than a personal odyssey or national process; rather it is a larger historical process that becomes manifest through personal experience and national experience but that necessarily transcends both of these realms.
TWE should be read in the tradition of Machiavelli, as a guide for individuals, but also a lesson in how to read the motivations, delusions, behaviors, and dynamics of the political landscape at a given time.6 Machiavelli’s The Prince urges us to be cognizant of history, so we understand the dynamics of consolidation and disruption of power. (Machiavelli 1950) Today we read Machiavelli and understand that he was watching the frequently violent consolidation of Europe into nation-states. His text instructs individuals to understand their actions in this new terrain, so they could more successfully (though not invariably so) navigate the new possibilities of political freedom rather than falling prey to the evolution of power structures.
Machiavelli scholars have argued that The Prince is to be read as a description of how people act and then advice as to how to manage these tendencies. For example, leaders want to be liked, but should mistrust this desire because it can lead them to curry favor instead of focusing on long-term strategy. Similarly, Fanon spends a great deal of time explaining the world according to a person who has been colonized, but he does so in order to describe the calculations individuals are most prone to make, and explain why the most immediate impulses to action will not be the most effective path.
To understand this central aspect of Fanon’s argument, consider how the colonized person experiences their struggle, humiliation, and anger as emotions on the individual level. Fanon believes that experience on the individual level will inevitably mislead the colonized person into responses that are counterproductive. “The native replies to the living lie of the colonial situation by an equal falsehood” (50). One of the most frequent responses to existing in a world in which one is systematically devalued is to dream of alternative worlds. Fanon recognizes the native’s interest in magic as a way of reframing colonial existence into larger struggles, which one can control. “Believe me, the zombies are more terrifying than the settlers; and in consequence the problem is no longer that of keeping oneself right with the colonial world and its barbed-wire entanglements, but of considering three times before urinating, spitting, or going out into the night” (56). The colonized subject can fight these epic personal and phantasmagoric battles on his or her own terms.
Fanon also explores how the desire for physical freedom that is denied in the colonized world is realized through dreams. “I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motorcars that never catch up with me. During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning” (52). The desire to achieve freedom is manifest in these singular forms, and both of these instances are also based in the imagination. Fanon describes how the native daydreams of taking the place of the settler, of living in his house, having his servants, sleeping with his wife. “The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor” (53). Role reversal, not regime change, is the guiding vision of someone who seeks only individual vindication. For this reason, as long as the colonized subject sees the process of decolonization on these individual, personal terms, he will be liable to recreate relations of oppression. “The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly always on the defensive, ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place” (39).
Beyond role reversal is the issue of displacement. Fanon points out that the native intellectual is trained to evaluate herself and her country from the position of European systems of knowledge. “The native intellectual accepted the cogency of these ideas, and deep down in his brain you could always find a vigilant sentinel ready to defend the Greco-Latin pedestal” (46). This form of education leads to a misrecognition of her actual location; she becomes trained to see her country through the eyes of an outsider. The colony is defined in relation to the ruling country as a space for development and appropriation, a space that is defined by its lack of some attributes and its wealth of others. The native intellectual measures the colony with these categories, and cannot see what is actually present and possible. Once engaged in the struggle for self-determination the system of colonial perception falls away, and the colonized subject sees herself as a historical actor in this particular context. “These politics are national, revolutionary, and social and these new facts which the native will now come to know exist only in action. They are the essence of the fight which explodes the old colonial truths and reveals unexpected facets, which brings out new meanings and pinpoints the contradictions camouflaged by these facts” (147).
Yet even as intellectuals and peasants alike become aware of the realities of their situation through the struggle, their mobilization into a collective unit creates a new source for disorientation. In chapter 3, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” Fanon explains how anticolonial nationalism can mean a continuation of the same politics of oppression. First, the impulse to trade places with the colonial rulers can seduce nationalist leaders. “[N]ationalization quite simply means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period” (152). Drawing a contrast with Marx’s vision of how the bourgeoisie can serve as agents of historical progress, Fanon argues that the indigenous middle class created by colonialism is incapable of serving the same role as the middle classes of Europe. “But this same lucrative role, this cheap-Jack’s function, this meanness of outlook and this absence of all ambition symbolize the incapability of the national middle class to fulfill its historic role of bourgeoisie” (153). Aspirational middle classes will want to use the existing colonial structure to their comparative advantage, they will always align themselves with the colonial rulers due to the privileges that they derive from it. Colonialism does create a middle class, but a reactionary one that is brimming with a desire to stand on the shoulders of natives who are less fortunate. Anticolonial nationalist movements led by this population will not move a population forward in history, but rather continue the stagnation of colonial governance.
Second, nationalism itself can promote the same kind of magical thinking that characterized the individual native’s response to colonialism. Now, the nation defines the citizens’ enemies, and tells them it is the fetish that will protect them. “The state, which by its strength and discretion ought to inspire confidence and disarm and lull everybody to sleep, on the contrary seeks to impose itself in spectacular fashion. It makes a display, it jostles people and bullies them, thus intimating to the citizen he is in perpetual danger” (165). The nation creates new monsters, to preoccupy its citizens and insist upon their loyalties. Fanon was the first to predict the enlarged position of the state in postcolonial situations without an increase in its capacities.7
Fanon, like Machiavelli, can see that in some circumstances political strategies are useful, but these same tools are not useful in all situations. Hence, he embraces nationalism as a tool for creating the collective that can disrupt the colonizing powers. “But if nationalism is not made explicit, if it is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words, into humanism, it leads up a blind alley. The bourgeois leaders of underdeveloped countries imprison national consciousness in a sterile formalism” (204). For Fanon, one of the problems with colonialism is that it stopped historical development and obscured the possibilities for action within its framework, ascribing agency only to outside actors. Nationalism will ultimately do the same thing, if it is not transformed into a robust vehicle for the development of citizens. Fanon describes his vision of how the magical powers attached to the nation at the moment of independence can be transferred to the people through the relentless message that they are the keepers of their own destinies. The task of decolonization is “to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people” (197).
More broadly, Fanon agues the key to avoiding the derailment of decolonization is to see it as a historical episode, “Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible or clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content” (36). Fanon is making a handbook for political action, but in a very particular context. Understanding the context is key if action is to be successful. What this means in practical terms for Fanon, is that those who have been colonized need to be able to break out of the personal and/or collective delusions that accompany the process of being colonized and also the process of decolonization. Only by overcoming their misperceptions of their position in the world and the possibilities that lie within it can political action become transformative.
The participants in the struggle need to see themselves as responding to the world historical context of colonization. The world they find themselves in was made by forces larger than the individual settlers before them. Personal vengeance will not bring this world to its end; only by seeing their experience in relationship to the historical framework of colonization can these individual fantasies of freedom be converted into a political restructuring of the world. Decolonization will require remaking the world that colonialism built; this remaking will require understanding the larger structures that are often obscured by individual, and then collective experience. The task is momentous, since frameworks of knowledge, experiences of personal identity, global processes of extraction, and systems of law and politics were developed in conjunction with the colonial system. Colonialism is hegemonic, but like all hegemonies, incomplete. If the native can see that the colony is also—still—a country, a space, a people, then the pervasive logic of colonialism is interrupted. Fanon’s historical perspective means being able to see simultaneously the greater forces at work, and the possibilities for human action within these perimeters.
Situatedness, or understanding one’s potential actions through a realistic assessment of the conditions around oneself, will allow people to overcome the previous training of colonialism. Interestingly, it is also a direct opposition to the “zone of nonbeing” that Fanon described in Black Skin, White Masks as a simultaneous presence and absence that colonized subjects experience. How they are perceived is not what they know themselves to be, but just as disconcertingly, how can one know oneself given only the distorted tools that society provides? Fanon argues that the process of understanding where the formerly colonized person exists in concrete time and space is the start of revolutionary consciousness. “The more people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them and their salvation lies in their own cohesion, in the true understanding of their interests, in knowing who their enemies are” (191). Interestingly, though TWE is a handbook for revolutions of decolonization, it makes it clear that there is no set formula for success. Fanon’s ultimate message is that the people need to be taught to apprehend reality and to act collectively in response to it. “The living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people; it is the coherent, enlightened action of men and women. The collective building up of destiny is the assumption of responsibility on the historical scale” (204).
Despite its clear footing in works by Hegel and Marx, TWE has not been seamlessly folded into the tradition of political theory.8 There are two obvious explanations for this marginalization. The first is the racialized nature of the book’s analysis and the race of the author, a conjecture that needs little elaboration. The other might be its endorsement of violence as a path to decolonization. TWE argues the violence of colonization can only be disrupted by violence: “From birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called into question by absolute violence” (37). There may be some merit to this position, but other thinkers such as George Sorel advocate violence in their theories, so this alone does not explain why Fanon’s work does not play a central role in contemporary political theory.
Furthermore, Fanon’s position on violence is not as unequivocal as it may appear. Many thinkers have dwelt upon Fanon’s embrace of violence as a central message of TWE, but others have pointed out that the last chapter of the book examines—with Fanon’s clinical eye—the mental disorders that accompany both the insurgent and counter-insurgent patients in the mental hospitals of Algeria during the war.9 Fanon knew that violence unmakes people. Bhabha (2004) has argued that the attention paid to violence in TWE is largely misguided, and that readers have been overly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to the text written in 1961. But it is clear Fanon sees colonialism as violence that formulates those subject to it; some form of unmaking is absolutely necessary. “[T]he ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (37).
I would argue that its marginalization in the field of political theory may also be due to its disparagement of European thought, and its explicit political commitments. Encountering Fanon’s TWE within the canon of political theory is a serious shock today, precisely because of his blunt assessment of the world created by racism, naked expropriation, and external control. Marx defined the purpose of critique: “Criticism, has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall bear the chain without caprice or consolation but so that he shall cast off the chain and pluck the living flower” (1963, 44). In line with this tradition, Fanon sweeps away the claims of European civilization and points out how miserably colonizing powers fail to live up to their own rhetoric. Reading TWE as a final installment in the canon of European political thought is like encountering a sudden plot twist at the end of a movie where the heroic protagonist is revealed as the evil culprit. Fanon minces no words: “The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him” (43).
Fanon adds a new, decidedly gritty, texture to the debates in which he engages. Into the narrative of reasoned discourse, strategizing heads, and claims about the human spirit, Fanon lobs the realities of colonial rule: electrodes on genitals, living in squalor, ritual humiliations of every imaginable sort. The discomfort of reading Fanon may be because his world is our own, and he might make us uncomfortable by pointing out the privileges we have and the price that has been paid to maintain them. This is unlike reading Nietzsche who is trying to dethrone Christianity or Rousseau’s quarrel over the state of nature; their struggles lie in the past. Fanon’s world is recognizable as the one today’s reader inhabits. Such brutal realities of colonialism and postcolonialism do not feature centrally in the field of contemporary political theory. But they should. Global inequalities of wealth suggest that the historical legacies of colonial expropriation have not ceased to be relevant, and also that current economic structures do not distribute wealth or power evenly. The colonial past is not dead, and the postcolonial present is not just. Colonialism and the problem of decolonization are arguably the great unsolved issues crying out for political attention today.
In the difficult balance between politics and theory, Fanon’s affiliation lies with the political. This is why it is not surprising that Fanon’s primary acolytes are not in the academy, but rather in political movements. Huey Newton and Bobby Seals reported being inspired by Fanon in drawing up plans for the Black Panther Party. Bobby Sands read the TWE in prison in Northern Ireland, and Steve Biko read the text in his dormitory at college. Amilcar Cabral studied Fanon as he planned the very late overthrow of Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau. Ali Shariati translated Fanon into Persian, and articulated the vision into the Iranian Revolution. TWE is a handbook for those seeking to overturn colonialism.10 Because he declares his affinities so clearly, is it easy to see him as a political thinker, and perhaps to dismiss him as an ideologue. Jean-Paul Sartre endorsed Fanon’s work in his introduction to the text from 1961: “Have the courage to read this book, for in the first place it will make you ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary sentiment” (14).
A crucial complement to Fanon’s desire to bring awareness to political actors of their historical situation, is his reframing of the global landscape of power. What is the historical context within which we exist? And as I earlier argued, the historical era of colonization and decolonization is not over, nor should we limit our understanding of this history to particular national contexts. Colonization was a global phenomenon that reshaped every nation on earth, not just those that were colonized. Fanon’s text provides valuable tools for understanding the political landscape today; we need to see how the world was shaped by these processes of extraction and domination as the modern international political system was evolving. We might think that our territory, experience, and knowledge are not part of the colonial system, but a careful reading of Fanon would teach us to look more closely for the patterns that are not immediately apparent.
Seeing the larger historical processes as they are manifest in particular locations and political issues today will fundamentally shift our understanding of political reality. For example, the Cold War is generally thought of as a struggle between the United States and Soviet blocs, the front lines of which were in Europe. But in TWE, Fanon explains how the détente of the “Cold War” was created by pushing violent conflict into Africa, Asian, and South America. Post-Soviet era archival research by Arne Odd Westad (2007) amply documents Fanon’s claims. Much of the conflict in postcolonial nations was not due to national instability, but rather the actions of global players that were deliberately occluded. How would our understanding of weak or failing states evolve if we placed these case studies in a robust history of how many natural resources were removed? Or how would international financial practices look held up to the mirror of colonial investment practices? What might we learn about the practices of the rule of law today by understanding its colonial roots? Political theorists often focus upon the historical context in which texts are produced, but Fanon’s TWE pushes us to historicize our own era in order to attain a clearer sense of contemporary political realities, and our own culpabilities and possibilities within them.
Unfortunately, Fanon’s analysis of the structural forces that create and punish racialized bodies is just as pressing today as when he wrote it. Researchers estimate there are 45 million slaves today, more than at any previous moment in world history (the Global Slavery Index, 2016). Prisoners, refugees, and migrants are subject to discourses that question their human status and we have developed new geographies that create legal “zones of nonbeing” in dark prisons, internment centers, and export processing zones. On a global scale, power inequalities between nations have continued to create impunity for those with more status, and increasing desperation for those outside the power elite. Some radical Islamic groups have claimed their status as anticolonial warriors, and citizens of many countries suffer the violence that Fanon predicted would characterize postcolonial power structures. Economic exploitation continues apace, though not strictly upon national lines; now colonized subjects can be found within virtually every economy as the global migration of Fanon’s wretched of the earth has grown to historical proportions with the movement of 244 million people in 2015 (United Nations, 2016).
The list of injustices and indignities is overwhelming, and this is precisely why we need Fanon’s encouragement and insights today. He understood that overcoming these systems we have created would not be easy for those who suffer by them, and those who benefit from them will use every possible tool to justify or deny their existence. Our humanity is to be rescued only in the struggle against them.
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(3) See postcolonial theorists of culture and identity such as Fuss (1994), McClintock (1995), and Stoler (2002). Philosophers of race such as Gooding-Williams (2005) and Bernasconi (2001) have explored the implications of Fanon’s work extensively. The ontological elements of Fanon’s work have also influenced a number of philosophers such as Gordon (2007) and Maldonado-Torres (2007). For overviews of Fanon’s contributions, see Gibson (2003) and Jinadu (1986).
(5) This essay uses the Farrington translation simply due to 25 years of familiarity with it, not out of a strong commitment to the politics behind either one.