97. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
I was told that I might find something useful for my work in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. I’m not sure I did, to be honest. It’s an important book, of course: a classic work about colonialism and decolonization. It was written (or rather dictated) under harrowing circumstances; Fanon was seriously ill with leukemia during its composition. From my perspective, however, Fanon’s model of decolonization, which is derived from his experience during the Algerian liberation struggle, is one that perhaps cannot be universalized. Is every struggle for decolonization going to be like the bloody war of liberation that took place in Algeria? That model also leads Fanon to a kind of romantic apotheosizing of violence, even though in the case studies of the psychological effects of war he presents in the first part of the fifth chapter, it’s clear that the war he sees as the only way to reconstruct the humanity of colonized peoples can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. Nevertheless, this is an important book, and this summary is necessarily lengthy, because I’ve tried to follow Fanon’s arguments carefully.
Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha wrote a long foreword to the new translation of The Wretched of the Earth (I used to own the older translation but somewhere along the line it’s gone missing). Bhabha is always interesting to read, and so I decided to include the foreword in this summary. From the outset, Bhabha is, not surprisingly, full of praise for Fanon’s text:
In my view, The Wretched of the Earth does indeed allow us to look well beyond the immediacies of its anticolonial context—the Algerian war of independence and the African continent—toward a critique of the configurations of contemporary globalization. This is not because the text prophetically transcends its own time, but because of the peculiarly grounded, historical stance it takes toward the future. The critical language of duality—whether colonial or global—is part of the spatial imagination that seems to come so naturally to geopolitical thinking of a progressive, postcolonial cast of mind: margin and metropole, center and periphery, the global and the local, the nation and the world. Fanon’s famous trope of colonial compartmentalization, or Manichaeanism, is firmly rooted within this anticolonial spatial tradition. (xiii-xiv)
That Manichaeanism, the binary opposition between colonizer and colonized, structures Fanon’s thinking about colonialism. That relationship is spatial, yes, but I would argue it’s more than spatial: it is historical and psychological as well.
However, for Bhabha, Fanon’s work looks ahead to the future, to the end of the Cold War and its aftermath:
there is another time frame at work in the narrative of The Wretched of the Earth that introduces a temporal dimension into the discourse of decolonization. It suggests that the future of the decolonized world . . . is imaginable, or achievable, only in the process of resisting the peremptory and polarizing choices that the superpowers impose on their ‘client’ states. Decolonization can truly be achieved only with the destruction of the Manichaeanism of the cold war; and it is this belief that enables the insights of The Wretched of the Earth . . . to provide us with salient and suggestive perspectives on the state of the decompartmentalized world after the dismemberment of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (xiii-xiv)
Bhabha takes Fanon’s brief mentions of the Cold War (in the book’s first essay, a lengthy meditation on violence) very seriously:
There are two histories at work in The Wretched of the Earth: the Manichaean history of colonialism and decolonization embedded in text and context, against which the book mounts a major political offensive; and a history of the coercive ‘univocal choices’ imposed by the cold warriors on the rest of the world, which constitute the ideological conditions of its writing. (xv)
According to Bhabha,
Fanon intriguingly projects unfinished business and unanswered questions related to the mid-twentieth century and the “end” of empire into the uncertain futures of the fin de siècle and the end of the cold war. It is in this sense that his work provides a genealogy for globalization that reaches back to the complex problems of decolonization . . . and it could be said, both factually and figuratively, that The Wretched of the Earth takes us back to the future. (xv)
How is this possible? For Bhabha, it’s because “Fanon’s vision of the global future, post colonialism and after decolonization, is an ethical and political project—yes, a plan of action as well as a projected aspiration—that must go beyond ‘narrow-minded nationalism’ or bourgeois nationalist formalism” (xvi). It is, in Fanon’s words, a humanistic project.
Stuart Hall called The Wretched of the Earth the “Bible of decolonisation,” Bhabha points out (xvi), and he reads Fanon’s universalism “in relation to a concept of the Third World as a project marked by a double temporality” (xvii). “Decolonization demands a sustained, quotidian commitment to the struggle for national liberation,” Bhabha writes:
But the coming into being of the Third World is also a project of futurity conditional upon being freed from the “univocal choice” presented by the cold war. Fanon’s invocation of a new humanism . . . is certainly grounded in a universalist ontology that informs both its attitude to human consciousness and social reality. The historical agency of the discourse of Third Worldism, however, with its critical, political stance against the imposed univocal choice of “capitalism vs. socialism,” makes it less universalist in temper and more strategic, activist, and aspirational in character. (xvii)
I considered that argument as I read The Wretched of the Earth; I saw Fanon’s Marxism on display throughout the text, and I wondered just how much Fanon was resisting that “univocal choice” after all. I’m still not sure, although my reservations might be completely wrongheaded. Nevertheless, as Bhabha points out,
Fanon’s call for a redistribution of wealth and technology beyond the rhetorical pieties of “moral reparation” is a timely reminder of the need for something like a “right” to equitable development (controversial though it may be) at a time when dual economies are celebrated as if they were global economies. And coming to us from the distances of midcentury decolonization, Fanon’s demand for a fair distribution of rights and resources makes a timely intervention in a decades-long debate on social equity that has focused perhaps too exclusively on the culture wars, the politics of identity, and the politics of recognition. (xviii)
I’ve read similar calls for reparations in the work on settler colonialism that I’ve been reading, and it makes sense that if Canadians (for example) need to make amends for the theft of Indigenous land, then former (and continuing?) imperial powers need to understand development not as “aid” but as reparations.
What is particularly interesting about The Wretched of the Earth is the way Fanon’s other occupation—as well as a writer, he was a psychiatrist—informs his analysis. Bhabha writes,
By seeing the need for equitable distribution as part of a humanistic project, Fanon transforms its economic terms of reference; he places the problem of development in the context of those forceful and fragile “psycho-affective” motivations and mutilations that drive out collective instinct for survival, nurture our ethical affiliations and ambivalences, and nourish our political desire for freedom” (xviii)
In this book, Bhabha continues, Fanon explores
the psycho-affective realm, which is neither subjective nor objective, but a place of social and psychic meditation. . . . It is Fanon’s great contribution to our understanding of ethical judgment and political experience to insistently frame his reflections on violence, decolonization, national consciousness, and humanism in terms of the psycho-affective realm—the body, dreams, psychic inversions and displacements, phantasmatic political identifications. A psycho-affective relation or response has the semblance of universality and timelessness because it involves the emotions, the imagination or psychic life, but it is only ever mobilized into social meaning and historical effect through an embodied and embedded action, an engagement with (or resistance to) a given reality, or a performance of agency in the present tense. (xix)
The racial and cultural discriminations that are embedded in colonialism, “the economic divisions set up to accommodate and authorize them,” and “the Manichaean mentality” that goes along with both of these, ends up creating “the violent psycho-affective conditions that Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth” (xx).
“The originality of the French phenomenological approach to colonialism and decolonization lies in its awareness of the abiding instability of the system, however stable its institutions may appear,” Bhabha continues, citing Albert Memmi (whose work I have yet to read) as an example (xxii). “On the one hand, France is the supreme bearer of universal Rights and Reason,” Bhabha writes, but on the other,
its various administrative avatars—assimilation, association, integration—deny those same populations the right to emerge as “French citizens” in a public sphere of their own ethical and cultural making. The principle of citizenship is held out; the poesis of free cultural choice and communal participation is withheld. (xxii)
“[A] phenomenological condition of nervous adjustment, narcissistic justification, and vain, even vainglorious, proclamations of progressive principles on the part of the colonial state” reveals “the injustices and disequilibrium that haunts the colonial historical record,” Bhabha argues. “Fanon was quick to grasp the psycho-active implications of a subtly punishing and disabling paternalistic power” (xxiii).“Without the rights of representation and participation, in the public sphere, can the subject ever be a citizen in the true sense of the term? If the colonized citizen is prevented from exercising his or her collective and communal agency as a full and equal member of civil society, what kind of shadow does that throw on the public virtue of the French republic?” Bhabha asks. “This does not merely make an ass of the law of assimilationist colonialism; it creates profound ethical and phenomenological problems of racial injustice at the heart of the psycho-affective realm of the colonial relation” (xxiv).
For Bhabha, though, more is at stake in anticolonial movements than just the establishing of national sovereignty and cultural independence:
the visionary goal of decolonization is to dismantle the “either-or” of the cold war that dictates ideological options and economic choices to Third World nations as an integral part of the supranational, xenophobic struggle for world supremacy. Cold war internationalism, with its dependant states and its division of the spoils, repeats the Manichaean structure of possession and dispossession experienced in the colonial world. (xxvi)
“Fanon was committed to creating a world-system of Third World nations that fostered a postcolonial consciousness based on a ‘dual emergence’ of national sovereignty and international solidarity,” Bhabha continues (xxvi). There are traces of these ideas in The Wretched of the Earth, yes, but I think Bhabha is overstating their importance, although I could be wrong.
Much more important to my understanding of The Wretched of the Earth is its immediate context, the Algerian war of liberation. As Bhabha writes,
Fanon forged his thinking on violence and counterviolence in . . . conditions of dire extremity, when everyday interactions were turned into exigent events of life and death—incendiary relations between colonizer and colonized, internecine feuds between revolutionary brotherhoods, terrorist attacks in Paris and Algiers by the ultra right-wing OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) and their pieds noirs supporters (European settlers in Algeria). As a locus classicus of political resistance and the rhetoric of retributive violence, The Wretched of the Earth captures the tone of those apocalyptic times. (xxxiv-xxxv)
Bhabha doesn’t like Hannah Arendt’s response to Fanon’s treatment of violence in this book (a response I haven’t read but should):
Hannah Arendt’s objection to The Wretched of the Earth has less to do with the occurrence of violence than with Fanon’s teleological belief that the whole process would end in a new humanism, a new planetary relation to freedom defined by the Third World. . . . Arendt is, at best, only half right in her reading of Fanon. He is cautious about the celebration of spontaneous violence . . . because “hatred is not an agenda” capable of maintaining the unity of party organization once violent revolt breaks down into the difficult day-to-day strategy of fighting a war of independence. (xxxv-xxxvi)
It’s true that in the essay on spontaneity Fanon does state that “hatred is not an agenda” (89), but elsewhere, even after his lacerating descriptions of the effects of war on combatants on both sides, he still carries on with the belief that violence leads to a new humanism. Perhaps, as Bhabha suggests, Arendt’s real problem was with Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to the book:
On the other hand, Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth (the nub of Arendt’s attack on Fanon’s ideas) is committed to bringing the colonial dialectic to its conclusion by carrying home—to metropolitan France—the lessons and the lesions of its anticolonial violence. . . . For Arendt, Fanon’s violence leads to the death of politics; for Sartre, it draws the fiery, first breath of human freedom. (xxxvi)
Bhabha proposes a different understanding of the role of violence in this text:
Fanonian violence, in my view, is part of a struggle for psycho-affective survival and a search for human agency in the midst of the agony of oppression. It does not offer a clear choice between life and death or slavery and freedom, because it confronts the colonial conditions of life-in-death. Fanon’s phenomenology of violence conceived of the colonized—body, soul, culture, community, history—in a process of “continued agony [rather] than a total disappearance.” (xxxvi)
That’s true, but at the same time, the violence Fanon extolls also results in psycho-affective damage to the subject caught up in the struggle for liberation (or the subject fighting on the other side of that struggle: among those Fanon treated are French torturers and their families).
According to Bhabha, “Fanon’s style of thinking and writing operates by creating repeated disjunctions—followed by proximate juxtapositions—between the will of the political agent and the desire of the psycho-active subject”:
His discourse does not privilege the subjective over the objective, or vice versa, nor does his argument prescribe a hierarchy of relations between material reality and mental or corporeal experience. The double figure of the politician-psychiatrist, someone like Frantz Fanon himself, attempts to decipher the changing scale (measure, judgment) of a problem, event, identity, or action as it comes to be represented or framed in the shifting ratios and relations that exist between the realms of political and psycho-affective experience. (xxxvii)
Bhabha notes that the roots of the violence Fanon describes (or extolls) are an example of the juxtaposition of material reality and psychological experience:
The origins of violence lie in a presumptive “false guilt,” which the colonized has to assume because of his powerless position; but it is a guilt that he does not accept or interiorize. . . . The eruption of violence is a manifestation of this anxious act of masking, from which the colonized emerges as a guerrilla in camouflage waiting for the colonist to let down his guard so that he might jump; each obstacle encountered is a stimulant to action and a shield to hide the insurgent’s intention to take the colonist’s place. Because he is dominated by military power and yet not fully domesticated by the hegemonic persuasions of assimilation and the civilizing mission, the anticolonialist nationalist is able to decipher the double and opposed meanings emitted by the sounding symbols of society, the bugle calls or police sirens: “They do not signify: ‘Stay where you are.’ But rather ‘Get ready to do the right thing.’ From the torqued mind and muscle of the colonized subject “on guard” emerges the nationalist agent as mujahid (FLN soldier) or fidayine (FLN guerilla). (xxxviii-xxxix)
In Bhabha’s reading of the text, “another scenario . . . runs through this narrative of violence and is somewhat unsettling to its progress, although not unraveled by it:
Here the psycho-affective imagination of violence is a desperate act of survival on the part of the “object man,” a struggle to keep alive. The “false” or masked guilt complex . . . emerges, Fanon tells us . . . when the very desire to live becomes faint and attenuated. . . . At this point, the splitting, or disjunction, between being dominated and being domesticated—the irresolvable tension between the colonized as both subject and citizen from which anticolonial violence emerges—is experienced as a psychic and affective curse rather than, primarily, as a political “cause” (in both senses of the term). The native may not accept the authority of the colonizer, but his complex and contradictory fate—where rejected guilt begins to feel like shame—hangs over him like a Damoclean sword; it threatens him with an imminent disaster that may collapse both the internal life and the external world. At this moment, the political agent may be shadowed—rather than stimulated—by the psycho-affective subject who also inhabits his bodily space. (xxxix)
“The aspiration to do the right thing might be felled by the fragility of the individual, by atavistic animosities, by the iron hand of history, or by indecision and uncertainty,” Bhabha continues, “but these failures do not devalue the ethical and imaginative act of reaching out toward rights and freedoms” (xl).
“Fanon, the phantom of terror, might be only the most intimate, if intimidating, poet of the vicissitudes of violence,” Bhabha writes. “But poetic justice can be questionable even when it is exercised on behalf of the wretched of the earth” (xl):
Knowing what we now know about the double destiny of violence, must we not ask: Is violence ever a perfect mediation? Is it not simply rhetorical bravura to assert that any form of secular, material mediation can provide a transparency of political action (or ethical judgment) that reveals ‘the means and the end’? Is the clear mirror of violence not something of a mirage in which the dispossessed see their reflections but from which they cannot slake their thirst? (xl)
Those comments reflect my unease with Fanon’s discussions of violence in this book. Violence has a terrible cost, as Fanon’s case studies indicate, and it’s hard for me to understand how someone who treated those who were paying that price could also celebrate violence as the price of individual and national liberation. Not just liberation, either; for Fanon, violence is the way that colonized subjects reconstruct themselves, and the necessary midwife to the creation of new nation-states. Perhaps that’s true, and perhaps there’s something wrong with me for doubting Fanon. Perhaps it’s just that I fear that it would be my head stuck on a pike, my broken body lying in the street after a bomb explodes. Or, worse, that I would be called upon to perpetrate acts of violence. I wouldn’t want to experience either possibility.
Sartre’s preface (if I’m going to spend time on the foreword, why not the preface as well?) begins by describing the moment when “black and yellow voices . . . talked of [European] humanism, but it was to blame us for our inhumanity” (xliii). “Then came another generation, which shifted the question,” Sartre continues:
Its writers and poets took enormous pains to explain to us that our values poorly matched the reality of their lives and that they could neither quite reject them nor integrate them. Roughly, this meant: You are making monsters out of us; your humanism wants us to be universal and your racist practices are differentiating us. (xliv)
Then, Sartre states, comes Fanon’s voice, stating that Europe is heading towards the brink, that it is finished (xliv-xlv):
When Fanon . . . says that Europe is heading for ruin, far from uttering a cry of alarm, he is offering a diagnostic. Dr. Fanon claims he neither considers it to be a hopeless case—miracles have been known to exist—nor is he offering to cure it. He is stating the fact that it is in its death throes. As an outsider, he bases his diagnostic on the symptoms he has observed. As for treating it, no: he has other things to worry about. Whether it survives or perishes, that’s not his problem. For this reason his book is scandalous. (xlv)
Sartre reads The Wretched of the Earth as a text about revolution, which of course it is:
The true culture is the revolution, meaning it is forged while the iron is hot. Fanon speaks out loud and clear. We Europeans, we can hear him. The proof is you are holding this book. Isn’t he afraid that the colonial powers will take advantage of his sincerity?
No. He is not afraid of anything. Our methods are outdated: they can sometimes delay emancipation, but they can’t stop it. And don’t believe we can readjust our methods: neocolonialism, that lazy dream of the metropolises, is a lot of hot air. . . . Our Machiavellianism has little hold on this world, which is wide awake and hot on the trail of every one of our lies. The colonist has but one recourse: force or whatever is left of it. The “native” has but one choice: servitude or sovereignty. What does Fanon care if you read or don’t read his book? It is for his brothers he denounces our old box of mischief, positive we don’t have anything else up our sleeve. It is to them he says: Europe has got its claws on our continents, they must be severed until she releases them. (xlvii-xlviii)
However, Sartre does think that Europeans should read Fanon’s book, despite its author’s apparent lack of interest in whether they do or not. He offers two reasons. First, “because Fanon analyzes you for his brothers and demolishes for them the mechanism of our alienations. Take advantage of it to discover your true self as an object. Our victims know us by their wounds and shackles: that is what makes their testimony irrefutable” (xlviii). Second,
you will find that Fanon is the first since Engels to focus again on the midwife of history. And don’t be led into believing that hotheadedness or an unhappy childhood gave him some odd liking for violence. He has made himself spokesman for the situation, nothing more. But that is all he needs to do in order to constitute, step by step, the dialectic that liberal hypocrisy hides from you and that has produced us just as much as it has produced him. (xlix)
The midwife of history, of course, is violence. Revolutionary violence is the only response to the racist violence of the colonies, where the colonized subject is not considered human:
orders are given to reduce the inhabitants of the occupied territory to the level of a superior ape in order to justify the colonist’s treatment of them as beasts of burden. Colonial violence not only aims at keeping these enslaved men at a respectful distance, it also seeks to dehumanize them. No effort is spared to demolish their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs, and to destroy their culture without giving them us ours. We exhaust them into a mindless state. Ill fed and sick, if they resist, fear will finish the job: guns are pointed at the peasants; civilians come and settle on their land and force them to work for them under the whip. If they resist, the soldiers fire, and they are dead men; if they give in and degrade themselves, they are no longer men. Shame and fear warp their character and dislocate their personality. (l)
That description of colonization rings true; it reflects what has taken place in North America since Europeans began arriving here in the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, Sartre continues, despite the work of soldiers and experts in psychological warfare, “nowhere have they achieved their aim” (l). Indeed, the colonizer, having failed “to carry the massacre to the point of genocide, and servitude to a state of mindlessness . . . cracks up, the situation is reversed, and an implacable logic leads to decolonization” (1i).
Moreover, violence is taught to the colonized by the colonizer, according to Sartre:
at first the only violence they understand is the colonist’s, and then their own, reflecting back at us like our reflection bouncing back at us from a mirror. Don’t be mistaken; it is through this mad rage, this bile and venom, their constant desire to kill us, and the permanent contraction of powerful muscles, afraid to relax, that they become men. (li-lii)
According to Sartre,
it is not first of all their violence, it is ours, on the rebound, that grows and tears them apart; and the first reaction by these oppressed people is to repress this shameful anger that is morally condemned by them and us, but that is the only refuge they have left for their humanity. Read Fanon: you will see that in a time of helplessness, murderous rampage is the collective unconscious of the colonized. (lii)
“This repressed rage, never managing to explode, goes round in circles and wreaks havoc on the oppressed themselves,” he continues. “In order to rid themselves of it they end up massacring each other, tribes battle against the other since they cannot confront the real enemy” (lii-liii). Fanon, Sartre writes,
shows perfectly clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither a storm in a teacup nor the reemergence of savage instincts nor even a consequence of resentment: it is man reconstructing himself. I believe we once knew, and have since forgotten, the truth that no indulgence can erase the marks of violence: violence alone can eliminate them. And the colonized are cured of colonial neurosis by driving the colonist out by force. Once their rage explodes, they recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge through reconstruction of themselves; from afar we see their war as the triumph of barbarity; but it proceeds on its own to gradually emancipate the fighter and progressively eliminates the colonial darkness inside and out. (lv)
“[W]e were men at his expense, he becomes a man at ours,” Sartre writes. “Another man: a man of higher quality” (lvii).
Here Sartre’s preface moves in a surprising direction. If Fanon “had wanted to describe fully the historical phenomenon of colonization, he would have had to talk about us—which was certainly not his intention,” he writes (lvii). “[W]e, too, peoples of Europe, we are being decolonized: meaning the colonist inside every one of us is surgically extracted in a bloody operation. Let’s take a good look at ourselves, if we have the courage, and let’s see what has become of us” (lvii). “First of all,” he states,
we must confront an unexpected sight: the striptease of our humanism. Not a pretty sight in its nakedness: nothing but a dishonest ideology, an exquisite justification for plundering; its tokens of sympathy and affectation, alibis for our acts of aggression. The pacifists are a fine sight: neither victims nor torturers! Come now! If you are not a vicim when the government you voted for, and the army your young brothers served in, commits “genocide,” without hesitation or remorse, then, you are undoubtedly a torturer. (lvii-lviii)
Sartre decries the inconsistency of “empty chatter” about liberty and equality existing alongside racism:
Noble minds, liberal and sympathetic—neocolonialists, in other words—claimed to be shocked by this inconsistency, since the only way the European could make himself man was by fabricating slaves and monsters. As long as the status of “native” existed, the imposture remained unmasked. We saw in the human species an abstract premise of universality that served as a pretext for concealing more concrete practices: there was a race of subhumans overseas who, thanks to us, might, in a thousand years perhaps, attain our status. In short, we took the human race to mean elite. Today the ‘native’ unmasks his truth; as a result, our exclusive club reveals its weakness: it was nothing more and nothing less than a minority. There is worse news: since the others are turning into men against us, apparently we are the enemy of the human race; the elite is revealing its true nature—a gang. Our beloved values are losing their feathers; if you take a closer look there is not one that isn’t tainted with blood. (lviii-lix)
“[W]e were the subjects of history, and now we are the objects,” he continues. “The power struggle has been reversed, decolonization is in progress; all our mercenaries can try and do is delay its completion” (lx). He concludes by accusing his French readers of remaining silent about the crimes being committed in their names:“At first you had no idea, I am prepared to believe it, then you suspected, and now you know, but you still keep silent. . . . France was once the name of a country; be careful lest it become the name of a neurosis in 1961” (lxii). Rather than remain silent, then, he is calling on his readers to speak out, to acknowledge what is happening, to recognize themselves in Fanon’s description of the colonizer.
Finally we arrive at Fanon’s text, and his first chapter, “On Violence.” He states at the outset that “decolonization is always a violent event. . . . decolonization is quite simply the substitution of one ‘species’ of mankind by another. The substitution is unconditional, absolute, total, and seamless” (1). Decolonization, he writes,
starts from the very first day with the basic claims of the colonized. In actual fact, proof of success lies in a social fabric that has been changed inside out. This change is extraordinarily important because it is desired, clamored for, and demanded. The need for this change exists in a raw, repressed, and reckless state in the lives and consciousness of colonized men and women. But the eventuality of such a change is also experienced as a terrifying future in the consciousness of another “species” of men and women: the colons, the colonists. (1)
“Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder,” Fanon continues. “But it cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magic wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman’s agreement”:
Decolonization, we know, is an historical process: In other words, it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance. Decolonization is the encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation. The first confrontation was colored by violence and their cohabitation—or rather the exploitation of the colonized by the colonizer—continued at the point of the bayonet and under cannon fire. The colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances. And consequently, the colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system. (2)
“Decolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captured in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History,” Fanon continues. “It infuses a new rhythm, specific to a new generation of men, with a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is truly the creation of new men. But such a creation cannot be attributed to a supernatural power: The ‘thing’ colonized becomes a man through the very process of liberation” (2). Therefore, decolonization “implies the urgent need to thoroughly change the colonial situation. Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: ‘The last shall be first.’ Decolonization is a verification of this. At a descriptive level, therefore, any decolonization is a success” (2). I wonder what he means by “any decolonization” here: he seems to be suggesting that any decolonization is a success, although later in the book he gives examples of how decolonized nation-states have failed to live up to their promise.
How does decolonization happen? According to Fanon, it happens through violence; it “reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists” (3). Decolonization can only succeed “by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence” (3). “You do not disorganize a society . . . with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered,” he writes. “The colonized, who have made up their mind to make such an agenda into a driving force, have been prepared for violence from time immemorial” (3).
The colonial world is compartmentalized, and only by understanding “its geographical configuration and classification” will we be able “to delineate the backbone on which the decolonized society is reorganized” (3). “The colonized world is a world divided in two,” with the border between them “represented by the barracks and the police stations” (3). There is a “native” sector, and a European sector: “The two confront each other, but not in the service of a higher unity. Governed by a purely Aristotelian logic, they follow the dictates of mutual exclusion: There is no conciliation possible, one of them is superfluous” (4). The colonist’s sector is “built to last, all stone and steel,” while the colonized’s sector
is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. . . . It’s a world with no space, people are piled on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized’s sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light. The colonized’s sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees, a sector that is prostrate. (4-5)
“This compartmentalized world, this world divided in two, is inhabited by different species,” Fanon writes; “what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to” (5). Violence is a foundational characteristic of the compartmentalization inherent in colonialism: “In the colonies the foreigner imposed himself using his cannons and machines. . . . the colonist always remains a foreigner” (5). “To dislocate the colonial world does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way between the two sectors,” Fanon writes. “To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory” (6).
“Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints,” Fanon suggests. “It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different. The colonial world is a Manichaean world” (6). One symptom of that Manichaeanism is the way the colonizer represents the society that has been colonized:
Colonized society is not merely portrayed as a society without values. The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or worse never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say it, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil. A corrosive element, destroying everything within his reach, a corrupting element, distorting everything which involves aesthetics or morals, an agent of malevolent powers, an unconscious and incurable instrument of blind forces. (6)
“Sometimes this Manichaeanism reaches its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the colonized subject,” Fanon writes. “In plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal” (7). However, he continues, “[t]he colonized . . . roar with laughter every time they hear themselves called an animal by the other. For they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory” (8). “In the colonial context the colonist only quits undermining the colonized once the latter have proclaimed loud and clear that white values reign supreme,” Fanon states. “In the period of decolonization the colonized masses thumb their noses at these very values, shower them with insults and vomit them up” (8).
Not surprisingly, Fanon argues that the land is central to decolonization: “For a colonized people, the most essential value, because it is the most meaningful, is first and foremost the land: the land, which must provide bread and, naturally, dignity. But this dignity has nothing to do with ‘human’ dignity. The colonized subject has never heard of such an ideal” (9). But it seems that there are other essential values involved in decolonization. For one thing, the colonized subject “is determined to fight to be more than the colonist. In fact, he has already decided to take his place. As we have seen, it is the collapse of an entire moral and material universe” (9). “The colonized subject thus discovers that his life, his breathing and his heartbeats are the same as the colonist’s,” and as a result, “his world receives a fundamental jolt”:
The colonized’s revolutionary new assurance stems from this. If, in fact, my life is worth as much as the colonist’s, his look can no longer strike fear into me or nail me to the spot and his voice can no longer petrify me. I am no longer uneasy in his presence. In reality, to hell with him. Not only does his presence no longer bother me, but I am already preparing to waylay him in such a way that soon he will have no other solution but to flee. (10)
According to Fanon, the apparently liberal values “which seemed to ennoble the soul prove worthless because they have nothing in common with the real-life struggle in which the people are engaged”: individualism turns out to be false; what actually matters is the collective (11-12). Truth also becomes an issue, or perhaps a tactic, during the struggle to decolonize: “For the people, only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth. . . . In answer to the lie of the colonial situation, the colonized subject responds with a lie. Behavior toward fellow nationalists is open and honest, but strained and indecipherable toward the colonists” (14). All of this reflects a fundamental truth of decolonization: “the Manichaeanism that first governed colonial society is maintained intact during the period of decolonization. In fact the colonist never ceases to be the enemy, the antagonist, in plain words public enemy number 1” (14).
“The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits,” Fanon writes. “Hence the dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality” (15). “The colonized subject is constantly on his guard.”:
Confronted with a world configured by the colonizer, the colonized subject is always presumed guilty. The colonized does not accept his guilt, but rather considers it a kind of curse, a sword of Damocles. But deep down the colonized subject acknowledges no authority. He is dominated but not domesticated. He is made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of his inferiority. He patiently waits for the colonist to let his guard down and then jumps on him. (16)
The symbols of society—the police, the army, the flag—“serve not only as inhibitors but also as stimulants”: they don’t just mean “Stay where you are”; they rather mean “Get ready to do the right thing” (16). (Note the echoes of Roland Barthes in those sentences.)
The colonized experience is one of lateral violence and, for Fanon, a wrongheaded religious mystification: “At the individual level we witness a genuine negation of common sense,” he writes. “[T]he colonized subject’s last resort is to defend his personality against his fellow countryman” (17). Indeed, “one of the ways the colonized subject releases his muscular tension is through the very real collective self-destruction of these internecine feuds” (17-18). Moreover, “[f]atalism relieves the oppressor of all responsibility since the cause of wrong-doing, poverty, and the inevitable can be attributed to God” (18). All of that changes during the liberation struggle: “this people who were once relegated to the realm of the imagination, victims of unspeakable terrors, but content to lose themselves in hallucinatory dreams, are thrown into disarray, re-form, and amid blood and tears give birth to very real and urgent issues” (19). Traditional religious practices lose their appeal: “With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode on his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories” (20).
Fanon draws a line between the colonial elites and the peasantry outside the capital. Political parties and the colonized business and intellectual elite tend to be “violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes”; in other words, they are not engaged in the revolution, partly because of their separation from the peasantry (21-23). That is a serious problem, because “colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence” (23). That violence is necessary, according to Fanon, but it is what the nationalist parties and colonized elites want above all to avoid:
Nonviolence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done, before any bloodshed or regrettable act is committed. But if the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands, and start burning and killing, it is not long before we see the ‘elite’ and the leaders of the bourgeois nationalist parties turn to the colonial authorities and tell them: “This is terribly serious! Goodness knows how it will all end. We must find an answer, we must find a compromise.” (23-24)
However, coming to an acceptable decolonizing compromise is not simple: “[t]he adherents of the colonial system discover that the masses might very well destroy everything,” and so they offer themselves as mediators, willing to negotiate (24). Fanon believes that the masses—and by masses, he means the rural peasantry—are the only ones willing to resort to the violence necessary for decolonization to succeed. Those who look to mediation, he writes, “are losers from the start. Their incapacity to triumph by violence needs no demonstration; they prove it in their daily life and their maneuvering” (25).
International capitalism, Fanon states, “objectively colludes with the forces of violence that erupt in colonial territories” (27). “The moderate nationalist political parties are . . . requested to clearly articulate their claims and to calmly and dispassionately seek a solution with the colonialist partner respecting the interests of both sides” (27). Nationalist political leaders are “mainly preoccupied with a ‘show’ of force—so as not to use it” (29). However, the people are willing to use force. “In order to maintain their stamina and their revolutionary capabilities, the people . . . resort to retelling certain episodes in the life of the community”: stories about outlaws who killed police officers become role models and heroes (30). Violence becomes “atmospheric”: “a number of driving mechanisms pick it up and convey it to an outlet. . . . violence continues to progress, the colonized subject identifies his enemy, puts a name to all of his misfortunes, and casts all his exacerbated hatred and rage in this new direction” (31). “But how do we get from the atmosphere of violence to setting violence in motion?” he asks (31). The catalyst comes from the colonizers, who know something is happening and begin to demand “drastic measures,” which the authorities take. As the authorities clamp down, “[a] dramatic atmosphere sets in where everyone wants to prove he is ready for everything,” and as a result, any “trivial incident” can set off “the machine-gunning” (31-32).
But, Fanon asks, what constitutes this violence? “As we have seen, the colonized masses intuitively believe that their liberation must be achieved and can only be achieved by force” (33). “The colonized peoples, these slaves of modern times, have run out of patience,” he continues. “They know that such madness alone can deliver them from colonial oppression” (34). They seem to intuit the truth: “no colonialist country today is capable of mounting the only form of repression which would have a chance of succeeding, i.e., a prolonged and large scale military occupation” (34). “Heartened by the unconditional support of the socialist countries the colonized hurl themselves with whatever weapons they possess against the impregnable citadel of colonialism,” Fanon writes, using a phrase (“the socialist countries”) that in some ways undercuts Bhabha’s argument in his foreword. “Although the citadel is invincible against knives and bare hands, its invincibility crumbles when we take into account the context of the cold war” (38). In that context, “the Americans take their role as the barons of international capitalism very seriously,” and they worry about disruptions in the economic life of the colony and, more importantly, “that socialist propaganda might infiltrate the masses and contaminate them” (38-39). “Today the peaceful coexistence between the two blocs maintains and aggravates the violence in colonial countries,” Fanon continues (39). In any case, the imperial powers don’t recognize what is happening; they “are convinced that the fight against racism and national liberation movements are purely and simply controlled and masterminded from ‘the outside’” (39).
According to Fanon,
[t]his threatening atmosphere of violence and missiles in no way frightens or disorients the colonized. We have seen that their entire recent history has prepared them to “understand” the situation. Between colonial violence and the insidious violence in which the modern world is steeped, there is a kind of complicit correlation, a homogeneity. The colonized have adapted to this atmosphere. For once they are in tune with their time. (40)
That reference to “the insidious violence in which the modern world is steeped” seems to be another reference to the Cold War. Fanon suggests that once independence is achieved, the leaders of nationalist parties (now the leaders of independent nation-states) “hesitate and choose a policy of neutrality” (40). That neutrality can consist of “taking handouts left and right”; such a neutrality is “a creation of the cold war” which “allows underdeveloped countries to receive economic aid from both sides,” but “it does not permit either of these two sides to come to the aid of underdeveloped regions the way they should” (40-41). Instead the two blocs spend “astronomical sums” on nuclear arms (41). “It is therefore obvious that the underdeveloped countries have no real interest in either prolonging or intensifying this cold war,” Fanon continues. But they are never asked for their opinion. So whenever they can, they disengage” (41). This interlude seems to be the source of Bhabha’s contention that Fanon is trying to get beyond the stark binaries of the Cold War.
Then he returns to the topic of the violence of the decolonial struggle:
The existence of an armed struggle is indicative that the people are determined to put their faith only in violent methods. The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now decide to express themselves with force. In fact the colonist has always shown them the path they should follow to liberation. (42)
“The colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time does it ever endeavor to cover up this nature of things,” he notes (42). “‘It’s them or us’ is not a paradox since colonialism . . . is precisely the organization of a Manichaean world, of a compartmentalized world” (43). The colonizer’s fantasy of the elimination of the colonized “does not morally upset the colonized subject. He has always known that his dealings with the colonist would take place in a field of combat. So the colonized subject wastes no time lamenting and almost never searches for justice in the colonial context” (43). “For the colonized, this violence represents the absolute praxis,” Fanon continues (44). “To work means to work towards the death of the colonist” (44). In fact, he argues, “[t]he colonized man liberates himself in and through violence. This praxis enlightens the militant because it shows him the means and the end” (44). “The greater the number of metropolitan settlers, the more terrible the violence will be. Violence among the colonized will spread in proportion to the violence exerted by the colonial regime” (46-47).
The Manichaeanism of the colonizer is returned by the colonized: “To the expression: ‘All natives are the same,’ the colonized reply: ‘All colonists are the same’” (49). “On the logical plane, the Manichaeanism of the colonist produces a Manichaeanism of the colonized,” Fanon writes.” The theory of the ‘absolute evil of the colonist’ is in response to the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the native.’” (50). Indeed, colonization is inherently violent: “[t]he arrival of the colonist signified syncretically the death of indigenous society, cultural lethargy, and petrification fo the individual. For the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist” (50). Violence restores life, and it creates national unity:
The violence of the colonized . . . unifies the people. By its very structure colonialism is separatist and regionalist. Colonialism is not merely content to note the existence of tribes, it reinforces and differentiates them. . . . Violence in its practice is totalizing and national. As a result, it harbors in its depths the elimination of regionalism and tribalism. (51)
Moreover, for the individual,
violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence. Even if the armed struggle has been symbolic, and even if they have been demobilized by rapid decolonization, the people have time to realize that liberation was the achievement of each and every one and no special merit should go to the leader. Violence hoists the people up to the level of the leader. (51)
Fanon make similar claims throughout the book, and as I’ve already suggested, I find them hard to accept, particularly given the case histories of people affected by colonial violence that constitute the bulk of the book’s fifth chapter.
However, I can’t quibble with Fanon’s analysis of the sources of European (and by extension settler colonial) wealth:
European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This we are determined never to forget. (53)
“Europe,” he continues,
has been bloated out of all proportions by the gold and raw materials from such colonial countries as Latin America, China, and Africa. Today Europe’s tower of opulence faces these continents, for centuries the point of departure of their shipments of diamonds, oil, silk and cotton, timber, and exotic produce to this very same Europe. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks in Bordeaux and Liverpool owe their importance to the trade and deportation of millions of slaves. And when we hear the head of a European nation declare with hand on heart that he must come to the aid of the unfortunate peoples of the underdeveloped world, we do not tremble with gratitude. On the contrary, we say among ourselves, “it is a just reparation we are getting.” So we will not accept aid for the underdeveloped countries as “charity.” Such aid must be considered the final stage of a dual consciousness—the consciousness of the colonized that it is their due and the consciousness of the capitalist powers that effectively they must pay up. (58-59)
Of course, European (and North American) governments don’t see things that way:
it is obvious we are not so naive as to think this will be achieved with the cooperation and goodwill of the European governments. This colossal task, which consists of reintroducing man into the world, man in his totality, will be achieved with the crucial help of the European masses who would do well to confess that they have often rallied behind the position of our common masters on colonial issues. In order to do this, the European masses must first of all decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty. (61-62)
Will European—or Canadian—people ever wake up to the way they have benefited and continue to benefit from colonialism? There’s no sign that Fanon’s call to awareness is likely to be heard, let alone heeded. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The book’s second chapter, “Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity,” expands on the discussion of violence in the first chapter. This chapter presents a chronology of the liberation movement—whether a typical one, or the Algerian one, isn’t quite clear. This chronology comes from his thoughts on violence. In fact, he tells us that his reflections on violence made him realize “the frequent discrepancy between the cadres of the nationalist party and the masses, and the way they are out of step with each other” (63). “The peasants distrust the town dweller,” he writes. “Dressed like a European, speaking his language, working alongside him, sometimes living in his neighbourhood, he is considered by the peasant to be a renegade who has given up everything which constitutes the national heritage” (67). Meanwhile, the Indigenous intellectuals end up criticizing the nationalist party’s “ideological vacuum” and its “dearth of strategy and tactics”: “They never tire of asking the leaders the crucial question: ‘What is nationalism? What does it mean to you? What does the term signify? What is the point of independence? And first how do you intend to achieve it?’” (77). In addition, “senior or junior cadres whose activities have been the object of colonialist police persecution,” whose activism “is not a question of politics but the only way of casting off their animal status for a human one,” demonstrate, “within the limits of their assigned activities, a spirit of initiative, courage, and a sense of purpose which almost systematically make them targets for the forces of colonialist repression” (77). When those activists are arrested, tortured, and convicted, “they use their period of detention to compare ideas and harden their determination” (77). They are the ones who launch the armed struggle (78).
Meanwhile, the peasants “have never ceased to pose the problem of their liberation in terms of violence, of taking back the land from the foreigners, in terms of national struggle and armed revolt. Everything is simple” (79). The peasants are coherent, generous, and prepared to make sacrifices (79). And those who live on the margins of the capital, the criminal “lumpenproletariat” who exist in its shanty towns, signify “the irreversible rot and gangrene eating into the heart of colonial domination. So the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty criminals, when approached, give the liberation struggle all they have got, devoting themselves to the cause like valiant workers” (81-82). (I can’t help thinking that Fanon is indulging in some serious idealizing in his description of the peasants and the “hooligans.”) “As long as colonialism remains in a state of anxiety, the national cause advances and becomes the cause of each and everyone,” he continues. “The struggle for liberation takes shape and already involves the entire country. During this period, spontaneity rules. Initiative rests with local areas” (83). Part of this spontaneity lies in the nature of the struggle:
In guerrilla warfare . . . you no longer fight on the spot but on the march. Every fighter carries the soil of the homeland to war between his bare toes. The national liberation army is not an army grappling with the enemy in a single, decisive battle, but travels from village to village, retreating into the forest and jumping for joy when the cloud of dust raised by the enemy’s troops is seen in the valley. (85)
Meanwhile, “the leaders of the insurrection realize that their units need enlightening, instruction, and indoctrination; an army needs to be created, a central authority established” (86). Spontaneity is not enough; the “peasant revolt” must be transformed “into a revolutionary war” (86). According to Fanon, “in order to succeed the struggle must be based on a clear set of objectives, a well-defined methodology and above all, the recognition by the masses of an urgent timetable” (86).
Part of the need for a more structured struggle lies in the colonizer’s tactics, which include psychological warfare and successful attempts “to revive tribal conflicts, using agents provocateurs engaged in what is known as countersubversion” (86). In addition, according to Fanon, traditional chiefs and “witch doctors” accept money to be the colonizer’s collaborators (86-87). The colonizer “identifies the ideological weakness and spiritual instability of certain segments of the population” and will use the mass of people “whose commitment is constantly threatened by the addictive cycle of physiological poverty, humiliation, and irresponsibility” (87). As a result, “[n]ational unity crumbles” and the insurrection ends up “at a crucial turning point” (88). At that turning point, “[t]he political education of the masses is now recognized as an historical necessity” (88).
Part of that political education involves understanding the need to pursue the struggle to the end: “[t]he people and every militant should be conscious of the historical law which stipulates that certain concessions are in fact shackles” (92). “Whatever gains the colonized make through armed or political struggle, they are not the result of the colonizer’s good will or goodness of heart but to the fact that that he can no longer postpone such concessions” (92). “All of this clarification, this subsequent raising of awareness and the advances along the road to understanding the history of societies can only be achieved if the people are organized and guided,” Fanon continues (92). When “[t]he people . . . realize that national independence brings to light multiple realities which in some cases are divergent and conflicting,” then
clarification is crucial as it leads the people to replace an overall undifferentiated nationalism with a social and economic consciousness. The people who in the early days of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeanism of the colonizer—Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel—realize en route that some blacks can be whiter than the whites, and that the prospect of a national flag or independence does not automatically result in certain segments of the population giving up their privileges and their interests. (93)
He suggests that some colonists who “condemn the colonial war” or who “volunteer to undergo suffering, torture, and death” will
defuse the overall hatred which the colonized feel toward the foreign settlers. The colonized welcome these men with open arms and in an excess of emotion tend to place absolute confidence in them. In the metropolis . . . numerous and sometimes prominent voices take a stand, condemn unreservedly their government’s policy of war and urge that the national will of the colonized finally be taken into consideration. Soldiers desert the colonialist ranks, others explicitly refuse to fight against a people’s freedom, are jailed and suffer for the sake of the people’s right to independence. (94)
As a result of these complexities, “[c]onsciousness stumbles upon partial, finite, and shifting truths” (95). However, as the struggle gains its “new political orientation” as a result of all of these changes, it becomes “national, revolutionary, and collective” (95-96).
“This new reality, which the colonized are now exposed to, exists by action alone,” Fanon argues:
By exploding the former colonial reality the struggle uncovers unknown facets, brings to light new meanings and underlines contradictions which were camouflaged by this reality. The people in arms, the people whose struggle enacts this new reality, the people who live it, march on, freed from colonialism and forewarned against any attempt at mystification or glorification of the nation. Violence alone, perpetrated by the people, violence organized and guided by the leadership, provides the key for the masses to decipher social reality. (96)
“Without this struggle, without this praxis,” Fanon concludes, “there is nothing but a carnival parade and a lot of hot air. All that is left is a slight readaptation, a few reforms at the top, a flag, and down at the bottom a shapeless, writhing mass, still mired in the Dark Ages” (96). And, as the next chapter indicates, some struggles for national liberation end up with little more than a new flag and new leadership.
In the book’s third chapter, “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness,” Fanon continues where the previous chapter ended:
History teaches us that the anticolonialist struggle is not automatically written from a nationalist perspective. Over a long period of time the colonized have devoted their energy to eliminating iniquities such as forced labor, corporal punishment, unequal wages, and the restriction of political rights. This fight for democracy against man’s oppression gradually emerges from a universalist, neoliberal confusion to arrive, sometimes laboriously, at a demand for nationhood. but the unpreparedness of the elite, the lack of practical ties between them and the masses, their apathy and, yes, their cowardice at the crucial moment in the struggle, are the cause of tragic trials and tribulations. (97)
“Instead of being the coordinated crystallization of the people’s innermost aspirations, instead of being the most tangible, immediate product of popular mobilization, national consciousness is nothing but a crude, empty, fragile shell,” Fanon warns. “The cracks in it explain how easy it is for young independent countries to switch back from nation to ethnic group and from state to tribe—a regression which is so terribly detrimental and prejudicial to the development of the nation and national unity” (97).
For Fanon, “such shortcomings and dangers derive historically from the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie in underdeveloped countries to rationalize popular praxis, in other words their incapacity to attribute it any reason” (97-98). “The characteristic, virtually endemic weakness of the underdeveloped countries’ national consciousness is not only the consequence of the colonized subject’s mutilation by the colonial regime,” he contends. “It can also be attributed to the apathy of the national bourgeoisie, its mediocrity, and its deeply cosmopolitan mentality” (98). The failure of the national bourgeoisie in underdeveloped countries is the result of the fact that it “is not geared to production, invention, creation, or work. All its energy is channeled into intermediary activities. Networking and scheming seem to be its underlying vocation” (98). That’s because “[u]nder the colonial system a bourgeoisie that accumulates capital is in the realm of the impossible” (98).
“In an underdeveloped country, the imperative duty of an authentic national bourgeoisie is to betray the vocation to which it is destined, to learn from the people, and make available to them the intellectual and technical capital which it culled from its time in colonial universities,” Fanon states (99). However, “the national bourgeoisie often turns away from this heroic and positive path, which is both productive and just, and unabashedly opts for the antinational, and therefore abhorrent, path of a conventional bourgeoisie, a bourgeois bourgeoisie that is dismally, inanely, and cynically bourgeois” (99). (Often? When has it not turned away from this path?) In addition, independence does not change the economy or its reliance on agriculture or commodities: “We continue to ship raw materials, we continue to grow produce for Europe and pass for specialists of unfinished products” (100). Economic development is therefore necessary, and for Fanon, economic development means nationalization. However, for the national bourgeoisie, “to nationalize does not mean placing the entire economy at the service of the nation. . . . For the bourgeoisie, nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period” (100). “The national bourgeoisie discovers its historical mission as intermediary”:
its vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism, forced to camouflage itself behind the mask of neocolonialism. The national bourgeoisie, with no misgivings and with great pride, revels in the role of agent in its dealings with the Western bourgeoisie. This lucrative role, this function as a small-time racketeer, this narrow-mindedness and lack of ambition are symptomatic of the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to fulfil its historic role as bourgeoisie. The dynamic, pioneering aspect, the inventive, discoverer-of-new-worlds aspect common to every national bourgeoisie is here lamentably absent. (100-01)
For those reasons, “the national bourgeoisie assumes the role of manager for the companies of the West and turns its country virtually into a bordello for Europe” (102).
In addition, after independence the national bourgeoisie “wages a ruthless struggle against the lawyers, tradespeople, landowners, doctors, and high-ranking civil servants ‘who insult the national dignity’” (103). The “urban proletariat, the unemployed masses, the small artisans, those commonly called small traders, side with this nationalist attitude,” and they “pick fights with Africans of other nationalities” (103). As a result, there is a shift “from nationalism to ultranationalism, chauvinism, and racism” (103). Fanon puts the blame on the national bourgeoisie:
wherever the petty-mindedness of the national bourgeoisie and the haziness of its ideological positions have been incapable of enlightening the people as a whole or have been unable to put the people first, wherever this national bourgeoisie has proven to be incapable of expanding its vision of the world, there is a return to tribalism, and we watch with a raging heart as ethnic tensions triumph. (105)
Those tensions are also the result of the way that “colonial domination gave preferential treatment to certain regions. The colony’s economy was not integrated into that of the nation as a whole. It is still organized along the lines dictated by the metropolis” (106). Colonialism, or perhaps neocolonialism, continues extracting and exporting natural resources, “while the rest of the colony continues, or rather sinks, into underdevelopment and poverty” (106).
Religion is another problem, but it too can be traced back to the failure of the national bourgeoisie. Religious tension on a continental scale “can take the shape of the crudest form of racism”:
Africa is divided into a white region and a black region. The substitute names of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa are unable to mask this latent racism. . . . The national bourgeoisie of each of these two major regions, who have assimilated to the core the most despicable aspects of the colonial mentality, take over from the Europeans and lay the foundations for a racist philosophy that is terribly prejudicial to the future of Africa. Through its apathy and mimicry it encourages the growth and development of racism that was typical of the colonial period. (108)
“Achieving power in the name of a narrow-minded nationalism, in the name of the race, and in spite of magnificently worded declarations totally void of content, irresponsibly wielding phrases straight out of Europe’s treatises on ethics and political philosophy,” Fanon continues, “the bourgeoisie proves itself incapable of implementing a program with even a minimum humanist content” (109). In addition, the national bourgeoisie is likely to be corrupt: “in region after region,” they “are in a hurry to stash away a tidy sum for themselves and establish a national system of exploitation,” and thereby “multiply the obstacles for achieving this ‘utopia’” of African unity (110). “The national bourgeoisies, perfectly clear on their objectives, are determined to bar the way to this unity, this coordinated effort by 250 million people to triumph over stupidity, hunger, and inhumanity” (110).
The dominance of the national bourgeoisie in the newly independent state leads to tyranny rather than democracy:
Instead of inspiring confidence, assuaging the fears of its citizens and cradling them with its power and discretion, the State, on the contrary, imposes itself in a spectacular manner, flaunts its authority, harasses, making it clear to its citizens they are in constant danger. The single party is the modern form of the bourgeois dictatorship—striped of mask, makeup, and scruples, cynical in every aspect. (111)
This dictatorship “never stops secreting its own contradiction”: because the national bourgeoisie is busy “lining its own pockets not only as fast as it can, but also in the most vulgar fashion,” it doesn’t have the resources “both to ensure its domination and to hand out a few crumbs to the rest of the country,” and therefore, “in order to hide this stagnation, to mask this regression, to reassure itself and give itself cause to boast, the bourgeoisie has no other option but to erect imposing edifices in the capital and spend money on so-called prestige projects” (111). Thus the national bourgeoisie “turns its back on the interior, on the realities of a country gone to waste, and looks towards the former metropolis and the foreign capitalists who secure its services” (111). After independence, “the leader will unmask his inner purpose: to be the CEO of the company of profiteers composed of a national bourgeoisie intent only on getting the most out of the situation” (112). The result is neocolonialism (112). The national party is transformed “into a syndication of individual interests” (115). “Inside the new regime . . . there are varying degrees of enrichment and acquisitiveness,” Fanon suggests:
Some are able to cash in on all sides and prove to be brilliant opportunists. Favors abound, corruption triumphs, and morals decline. Today the vultures are too numerous and too greedy, considering the meagerness of the national spoils. The party, which has become a genuine instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the State apparatus and determines the containment and immobilization of the people. The party helps the State keep its grip on the people. It is increasingly an instrument of coercion and clearly antidemocrati.” (116)
The nationalist party “skips the parliamentary phase and chooses a national-socialist-type dictatorship,” the kind of “shortsighted fascism that has triumphed for a half a century in Latin America,” which “is the dialectical result of the semicolonial State which has prevailed since independence” (116-17). In addition, “[t]he national bourgeoisie sells itself increasingly openly to the major foreign companies. Foreigners grab concessions through kickbacks, scandals abound, ministers get rich, their wives become floozies, members of the legislature line their pockets, and everybody, down to police officers and customs officials, joins hands in this huge caravan of corruption” (117). Fanon uses a striking image to describe this situation: “The behavior of the national bourgeoisie of certain underdeveloped countries is reminiscent of members of a gang who, after every holdup, hide their share form their accomplices and wisely prepare for retirement” (118). “Such behavior reveals that the national bourgeoisie more or less realizes it will lose out in the long term. It foresees that such a situation cannot last for ever, but intends making the most of it” (118).
The exploitation and the resulting “distrust of the State inevitably trigger popular discontent,” Fanon writes:
Under the circumstances the regime becomes more authoritarian. The army thus becomes the indispensable tool for systematic repression. In lieu of a parliament, the army becomes the arbiter. But sooner or later it realizes its influence and intimidates the government with the constant threat of a pronunciamento. (118)
The national bourgeoisie “increasingly turns its back on the overall population” and “fails even to squeeze from the West such spectacular concessions as valuable investments in the country’s economy or the installation of certain industries” (120). There is some resistance to this state of affairs: some intellectuals and officials “sincerely feel the need for a planned economy, for outlawing profiteers and doing away with any form of mystification,” and they are also “in favor of maximum participation by the people in the management of public affairs” (121). However,
[t]he profoundly democratic and progressive elements of the young nation are reluctant and shy about making any decision due to the apparent resilience of the bourgeoisie. The colonial cities of the newly independent underdeveloped countries are teeming with the managerial class. . . . observers are inclined to believe in the existence of a powerful and perfectly organized bourgeoisie. In fact we now know that there is no bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries. What makes a bourgeoisie is not its attitude, taste, or manners. It is not even its aspirations. The bourgeoisie is above all the direct product of precise economic realities. (122)
In other words, according to Fanon, the cause of this situation of continuing underdevelopment, corruption, and political authoritarianism is the historical failure of colonies to create a true bourgeoisie capable of leading economic development. Fanon’s Marxist teleology is obvious in that argument, and I think he’s letting the fact of colonization off rather lightly. The distortions caused by colonization are to blame, aren’t they? And those distortions are many. They include national boundaries that make little sense; multiethnic, multilinguistic states are harder to manage than states that are more clearly and easily defined as nations, and it’s possible that those colonial boundaries needed to be redrawn (although that can lead to violence as well). Moreover, as Fanon is aware, the colonizer’s violence doesn’t teach the colonized anything about democracy or the rule of law, and the colonizer’s theft doesn’t teach the colonized to avoid corruption. In addition, wouldn’t the horrific violence of the anticolonial struggle do the opposite of what Fanon argues in the long term? Yes, during the struggle it might be a unifying force, but afterwards, is a history of violence or civil war likely to lead to unity? I wish Fanon had provided a historical example to support his claims about violence. I can’t think of any offhand.
Fanon’s Marxism also comes out in his proposed solution to the problems he is describing: nationalization. “If the authorities want to life the country out of stagnation and take great strides toward development and progress, they first and foremost must nationalize the tertiary sector,” he writes (123).“But it is evident that such a nationalization must not take on the aspect of rigid state control,” he continues. “This does not mean putting politically uneducated citizens in managerial positions. Every time this procedure has been adopted it was found that the authorities had in fact contributed to the triumph of a dictatorship of civil servants, trained by the former metropolis, who quickly proved incapable of thinking in terms of the nation as a whole” (123). Of course, the last 50-odd years of history has taught us that even those who are “politically educated” can become corrupt and authoritarian. That seems to be a very human failing. I can’t help thinking that Fanon’s belief in the efficacy of the kind of political education he is advocating for here is naive.
The problems Fanon is describing inevitably lead to political repression: “Instead of letting the people express their grievances, instead of making the free circulation of ideas between the people and the leadership its basic mission, the party erects a screen of prohibitions” (126). They also lead to divisions within the nascent state: “The party will also commit many mistakes regarding national unity. For example, the so-called national party operates on a tribal basis. It is a veritable ethnic group which has transformed itself into a party” (126). Sometimes the result is “a genuine ethnic dictatorship” (126).
Fanon continues to believe, however, that “[a] country which really wants to answer to history, which wants to develop its towns and the minds of its inhabitants, must possess a genuine party. The party is not an instrument in the hands of the government. Very much to the contrary, the party is an instrument in the hands of the people” (127). He argues in favour of regional development strategies, to halt “the chaotic exodus of the rural masses toward the towns” (128). It is important to allocate resources to the interior, where the majority of the population lives: “The myth of the capital must be debunked and the disinherited shown that the decision has been made to work in their interest” (129). “Instead of delving into their diagrams and statistics, indigenous civil servants and technicians should delve into the body of the population,” he writes. “They should not bristle every time there is mention of an assignment to the ‘interior.’” (129). Indeed, he suggests, “[o]ne of the greatest services the Algerian revolution has rendered to Algerian intellectuals was to put them in touch with the masses, to allow them to see the extreme, unspeakable poverty of the people and at the same time witness the awakening of their intelligence and the development of their consciousness” (130).
When the population is politically educated, Fanon contends, the new nation-state is more likely to be a success:
The more the people understand, the more vigilant they become, the more they realize in fact that everything depends on them and that their salvation lies in their solidarity, in recognizing their interests and identifying their enemies. The people understand that wealth is not the fruit of labor but the spoils form an organized protection racket. The rich no longer seem respectable men but flesh-eating beasts, jackals and ravens who wallow in the blood of the people. Moreover the political commissioners had to rule that nobody would work for anyone else. The land belongs to those who work it. This is a principle which through an information campaign has become a fundamental law of the Algerian revolution. The peasants who employed agricultural laborers have been obliged to distribute land share to their former employees. (133)
In the regions of Algeria where “these enlightening experiments” were carried out, “where we witnessed the edification of man through revolutionary teachings, the peasant clearly grasped the principle whereby the clearer the commitment, the better one works” (133). In Algeria, “the people have a very clear notion of what belongs to them. The Algerian people now know they are the sole proprietor of their country’s soil and subsoil” (134). “We have taken the Algerian example to clarify our discourse—not to glorify our own people, but quite simply to demonstrate the important part their struggle has played in achieving consciousness,” he writes (134). “But we should be aware that the victory over the pockets of least resistance—the legacy of the material and spiritual domination of the country—is a requisite that no government can escape” (135).
Fanon also believes that an “information campaign” can lead to increased economic productivity: “Public business must be the business of the public” (135-36). He also advocates that recruits to a “civilian national service” ought to carry out “major public works projects of national interest” (141-42). But the most important thing is political education:
If nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened, if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness, into humanism, then it leads to a dead end. A bourgeois leadership of the underdeveloped countries confines the national consciousness to a sterile formalism. Only the massive commitment by men and women to judicious and productive tasks gives form and substance to this consciousness. It is then that flags and government buildings cease to be the symbols of the nation. The nation deserts the false glitter of the capital and takes refuge in the interior where it receives life and energy. The living expression of the nation is the collective consciousness in motion of the entire people. It is the enlightened and coherent praxis of the men and women. The collective forging of a destiny implies undertaking responsibility on a truly historical scale. Otherwise there is anarchy, repression, the emergence of tribalized parties and federalism, etc. If the national government wants to be national it must govern by the people and for the people, for the disinherited and by the disinherited. No leader, whatever his worth, can replace the will of the people, and the national government, before concerning itself with international prestige, must first restore dignity to all citizens, furnish their minds, fill their eyes with human things and develop a human landscape for the sake of its enlightened and sovereign individuals. (144)
Unlike Fanon, I’m not a revolutionary, and I just don’t possess the kind of optimism that would lead me to believe that political education alone can lead a majority of people to set aside their short-term self-interest and work together. And I don’t believe that a collective experience of violence can lead to that result, either. In how many countries has the positive outcome Fanon imagines come to fruition? Not that many. Yes, that’s partly the result of superpower meddling, and it’s definitely the result of the way colonization deforms societies. But individually and socially, we are what we do; we become what we enact. So if we engage in acts of horrific violence, however justified they may be, how likely is it that we will end up as peaceful democrats? I can’t help thinking that such outcomes would be too much to hope for.
Fanon’s fourth chapter, “On National Culture,” focuses on the role of intellectuals and artists in anticolonial struggles and the nation-states that come into being as a result of those struggles. He begins on a somewhat ominous note, with its suggestion of the possibility of betrayal:
Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity. In the underdeveloped countries preceding generations have simultaneously resisted the insidious agenda of colonialism and paved the way for the emergence of the current struggles. Now that we are in the heat of combat, we must shed the habit of decrying the efforts of our forefathers or feigning incomprehension at their silence or passiveness. They fought as best they could with the weapons they possessed at the time, and if their struggle did not reverberate throughout the international arena, the reason should be attributed not so much to a lack of heroism but to a fundamentally different international situation. More than one colonized subject had to say, “We’ve had enough,” more than one tribe had to rebel, more than one peasant revolt had to be quelled, more than one demonstration to be repressed, for us today to stand firm, certain of our victory. (145-46)
“For us who are determined to break the back of colonialism, our historic mission is to authorize every revolt, every desperate act, and every attack aborted or drowned in blood,” he continues (146). That leads him to the subject of this chapter: “the fundamental issue of the legitimate claim to a nation” (146).
“We now know that in the first phase of the national struggle colonialism attempts to defuse nationalist demands by manipulating economic doctrine,” Fanon writes. “At the first signs of a dispute, colonialism feigns comprehension by acknowledging with ostentatious humility that the territory is suffering from serious underdevelopment that requires major social and economic reforms” (146). Nevertheless,
we must persuade ourselves that colonialism is incapable of procuring for colonized peoples the material conditions likely to make them forget their quest for dignity. Once colonialism has understood where its social reform tactics would lead it, back come the old reflexes of adding police reinforcements, dispatching troops, and establishing a regime of terror better suited to its interests and its psychology. (147)
“Faced with the colonized intellectual’s debunking of the colonialist theory of a precolonial barbarism, colonialism’s response is mute,” Fanon suggests. “It is especially mute since the ideas put forward by the young colonized intelligentsia are widely accepted by metropolitan specialists” (147).
Colonized intellectuals tend to turn to the past, because they are repulsed by the present:
Since perhaps in their unconscious the colonized intellectuals have been unable to come to loving terms with the present history of their oppressed people, since there is little to marvel at in its current state of barbarity, they have decided to go further, to delve deeper, and they must have been overjoyed to discover that the past was not branded with shame, but dignity, glory, and sobriety. Reclaiming the past does not only rehabilitate or justify the promise of a national culture. It triggers a change of fundamental importance in the colonized’s psycho-affective equilibrium. Perhaps it has not been sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not content merely to impose its law on the colonized country’s present and future. Colonialism is not satisfied with snaring the people in its net or of draining the colonized brain of any form or substance. With a kind of perverted logic, it turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it. This effort to demean history prior to colonization today takes on a dialectical significance. (148-49)
“At the level of the unconscious . . . colonialism was not seeking to be perceived by the indigenous population as a sweet, kind-hearted mother who protects her child from a hostile environment, but rather a mother who constantly prevents her basically perverse child from committing suicide or giving free reign to its malevolent instincts,” Fanon continues. “The colonial mother is protecting the child from itself, from its ego, its physiology, its biology, and its ontological misfortune” (149).
“The colonized intellectual who wants to put his struggle on a legitimate footing, who is intent on providing proof and accepts to bare himself in order to better display the history of his body, is fated to journey deep into the very bowels of his people,” Fanon writes (149). That journey is “not specifically national” (149); rather, it is “on a continental scale” (150), because colonialism’s distortions and lies are on a continental scale as well (150). “[T]he major responsibility for this racialization of thought, or at least the way it is applied, lies with the Europeans who have never stopped placing white culture in opposition to the other noncultures,” Fanon continues. “Colonialism did not think it worth its while denying one national culture after the other. Consequently the colonized’s response was immediately continental in scope”—example of negritude, “the affective if not logical antithesis of that insult which the white man had leveled at the rest of humanity” (150). However, Fanon wants to see the development, at some point, of national cultures: “In Africa, the reasoning of the intellectual is Black-African or Arab-Islamic. It is not specifically national. Culture is increasingly cut off from reality” (154). Because the colonized intellectual risks becoming alienated from “his people,”
in other words the living focus of contradictions which risk becoming insurmountable, the colonized intellectual wrenches himself from the quagmire which threatens to suck him down, and determined to believe what he finds, he accepts and ratifies it with heart and soul. He finds himself bound to answer for everything and for everyone. He not only becomes an advocate, he accepts being included with the others, and henceforth he can afford to laugh at his past cowardice. (155)
“This painful and harrowing wrench is, however, a necessity,” Fanon writes. “Otherwise we will be faced with extremely serious psycho-affective mutilations: individuals without an anchorage, without borders, colorless, stateless, rootless, a body of angels” (155).
Most colonized intellectuals will have been educated in Europe, and Europe offers them very little that applies to their situation:
The intellectual who has slipped into Western civilization through a cultural back door, who has managed to embody, or rather change bodies with, European civilization, will realize that the cultural model he would like to integrate for authenticity’s sake offers little in the way of figureheads capable of standing up to comparison with the many illustrious names in the civilization of the occupier. History, of course, written by and for Westerners, may periodically enhance the image of certain episodes of the African past. But faced with his country’s present-day status, lucidly and “objectively” observing the reality of the continent he would like to claim as his own, the intellectual is terrified by the void, the mindlessness, and the savagery. Yet he feels he must escape this white culture. He must look elsewhere, anywhere; for lack of a cultural stimulus comparable to the glorious panorama flaunted by the colonizer, the colonized intellectual frequently lapses into heated arguments and develops a psychology dominated by an exaggerated sensibility, sensitivity, and susceptibility. (156-57)
Abandoning the colonial or European intellectual or aesthetic models is a blow against colonialism: “Every colonized intellectual won over, every colonized intellectual who confesses, once he decides to revert to his old ways, not only represents a setback for the colonial enterprise, but also symbolizes the pointlessness and superficiality of the work accomplished” (158).
According to Fanon, there are three stages in the development of colonized writers. “First, the colonized intellectual proves he has assimilated the colonizer’s culture” (158). Second,
the colonized writer has his convictions shaken and decides to cast his mind back. This period corresponds approximately to the immersion we have just described. But since the colonized writer is not integrated with his people, since he maintains an outsider’s relationship to them, he is content to remember. (159)
Finally, there is the third stage, “a combat stage where the colonized writer, after having tried to lose himself among the people, with the people, will rouse the people. Instead of letting the people’s lethargy prevail, he turns into a galvanizer of the people. Combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature emerges” (159). According to Fanon,
[s]ooner or later . . . the colonized intellectual realizes that the existence of a nation is not proved by culture, but in the people’s struggle against the forces of occupation. No colonialism draws its justification from the fact that the territories it occupies are culturally nonexistent. Colonialism will never be put to shame by exhibiting unknown cultural treasures under its nose. The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism. The colonized intellectual who returns to his people through works of art behaves in fact like a foreigner. . . . the ideas he expresses, the preoccupations that haunt him are in now way related to the daily lot of the men and women of his country. (159-60)
“Seeking to cling close to the people,” the colonized artist “clings merely to a visible veneer:
This veneer, however, is merely a reflection of a dense, subterranean life in perpetual renewal. This reification, which seems all too obvious and characteristic of the people, is in fact but the inert, already invalidated outcome of the many, and not always coherent, adaptations of a more fundamental substance beset with radical changes. Instead of seeking out this substance, the intellectual lets himself be mesmerized by these mummified fragments which, now consolidated, signify, on the contrary, negation, obsolescence, and fabrication. Culture never has the translucency of custom. Culture eminently eludes any form of simplification. In its essence it is the very opposite of custom, which is always a deterioration of culture. Seeking to stick to tradition or reviving neglected traditions is not only going against history, but against one’s people. When a people support an armed or even political struggle against a merciless colonialism, tradition changes meaning. What was a technique of passive resistance may, in this phase, be radically doomed. . . . This is why the intellectual often risks being out of step. The peoples who have waged the struggle are increasingly impermeable to demagoguery, and by seeking to follow them too closely, the intellectual turns out to be nothing better than a vulgar opportunist, even behind the times. (160-61)
Aren’t intellectuals or artists typically out of step with the times, or with the majority of their fellow citizens? Or is that a cynical question? Fanon really wants to see a connection between intellectuals and artists and the people—even a sense of the former belonging to the latter—and I wonder how likely that is to happen.
In the visual arts, for example,
the colonized creator who at all costs wants to create a work of art of national significance confines himself to stereotyping details. . . . these creators forget that modes of thought, diet, modern techniques of communication, language, and dress have dialectically reorganized the mind of the people and that the abiding features that acted as safeguards during the colonial period are in the process of undergoing enormous radical transformations. (161)
“This creator, who decides to portray national truth, turns, paradoxically enough, to the past, and so looks at what is irrelevant to the present,” Fanon argues (161). And that irrelevance is a problem. At the same time, do artists really attempt “to portray national truth”? How many artists have that kind of ambition (or hubris)?
According to Fanon,
the first duty of the colonized poet is to clearly define the people, the subject of his creation. We cannot go resolutely forward unless we first realize our alienation. We have taken everything from the other side. Yet the other side has given us nothing except to sway us in its direction through a thousand twists, except lure us, seduce us, and imprison us by ten thousand devices, by a hundred thousand tricks. (163)
“It is not enough to reunite with the people in a past where they no longer exist,” he continues. “We must rather reunite with them in their recent counter move which will suddenly call everything into question; we must focus on that zone of hidden fluctuation where the people can be found, for let there be no mistake, it is here that their souls are crystallized and their perception and respiration transfigured” (163). It’s not that using or drawing from the past is wrong. Rather, Fanon contends, “[w]hen the colonized intellectual writing for his people uses the past he must do so with the intention of opening up the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope. But in order to secure hope, in order to give it substance, he must take part in the action and commit himself body and soul to the national struggle” (167). “The colonized intellectual is responsible not to his national culture, but to the nation as a whole, whose culture is, after all, but one aspect,” Fanon argues. “One cannot divorce the combat for culture from the people’s struggle for liberation” (168). I can’t help finding all of this to be very prescriptive. No doubt that’s because Fanon subsumes everything underneath the national, anticolonial struggle. Everything needs to serve that struggle, including painting and poetry. “[N]o speech, no declaration on culture will detract us from our fundamental tasks which are to liberate the national territory; constantly combat the new forms of colonialism; and, as leaders, stubbornly refuse to indulge in self-satisfaction at the top,” he writes (170).
Colonization was an experience of dislocation and “cultural obliteration,” Fanon points out:
The sweeping, leveling nature of colonial domination was quick to dislocate in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people. The denial of a national reality, the new legal system imposed by the occupying power, the marginalization of the indigenous population and their customs by colonial society, expropriation, and the systematic enslavement of men and women, all contributed to this cultural obliteration. (170)
“The reactions of the colonized to this situation vary,” he continues:
Whereas the masses maintain intact traditions totally incongruous with the colonial situation, whereas the style of artisanship ossifies into an increasingly stereotyped formalism, the intellectual hurls himself frantically into the frenzied acquisition of the occupier’s culture, making sure he denigrates his national culture, or else confines himself to making a detailed, methodical, zealous, and rapidly sterile inventory of it. (171)
Both reactions “result in unacceptable contradictions”:
Renegade or substantialist, the colonized subject is ineffectual precisely because the colonial situation has not been rigorously analyzed. The colonial situation brings national culture virtually to a halt. . . . But if we follow the consequences to their very limit there are signs that the veil is being lifted from the national consciousness, oppression is being challenged and there is hope for the liberation struggle. (171)
“National culture under colonial domination is a culture under interrogation whose destruction is sought systematically,” Fanon writes. “Very quickly it becomes a culture condemned to clandestinity” (171).
However, the fact that this culture continues to exist is vitally important:
This persistence of cultural expression condemned by colonial society is already a demonstration of nationhood. But such a demonstration refers us back to the laws of inertia. No offensive has been launched, no relations redefined. There is merely a desperate clinging to a nucleus that is increasingly shriveled, increasingly inert, and increasingly hollow. (172)
But there are costs to the culture’s survival: “[a]fter a century of colonial domination culture becomes rigid in the extreme, congealed, and petrified. The atrophy of national reality and the death throes of national culture feed on one another. This is why it becomes vital to monitor the development of this relationship during the liberation struggle” (172). “Gradually, imperceptibly, the need for a decisive confrontation imposes itself and is eventually felt by the great majority of the people,” Fanon states. “Tensions emerge where previously there were none” (172). “These new tensions, which are present at every level of the colonial system, have repercussions on the cultural front:
In literature, for example, there is relative overproduction. Once a pale imitation of the colonizer’s literature, indigenous production now shows greater diversity and a will to particularize. . . . the intelligentsia turns productive. This literature is at first confined to the genre of poetry and tragedy. Then novels, short stories, and essays are tackled. There seems to be a kind of internal organization, a law of expression, according to which poetic creativity fades as the objectives and methods of the liberation struggle become clearer. There is a fundamental change of theme. In fact, less and less do we find those bitter, desperate recriminations, those loud, violent outbursts that, after all, reassure the occupier. (172-73)
“The crystallization of the national consciousness will not only radically change the literary genres and themes but also create a completely new audience,” Fanon argues. “Whereas the colonized intellectual started out by producing work exclusively with the oppressor in mind . . . he gradually switches over to addressing himself to his people” (173). “It is only from this point onward that one can speak of a national literature. Literary creation addresses and clarifies typically nationalist themes. This is combat literature in the true sense of the word, in the sense that it calls upon a whole people to join in the struggle for the existence of the nation” (173).
In this revolutionary situation, oral literature begins to change, and storytellers become creative and imaginative and inventive:
The storyteller responds to the expectations of the people by trial and error and searches for new models, national models, apparently on his own, but in fact with the support of his audience. Comedy and farce disappear or else lose their appeal. As for drama, it is no longer the domain of the intellectual’s tormented conscience. No longer characterized by despair and revolt, it has become the people’s daily lot, it has become part of an action in the making or already in progress. (174-75)
As before, that description seems unnecessarily prescriptive. Do these changes happen everywhere? Is it true that people lost their interest in comedy? Fanon presents no evidence and that’s a weakness in his argument.
As these changes take place, the colonizer sees that the culture is changing and becomes a defender of the traditional artistic styles (175). However, that defence makes little difference to the culture’s revival and reinvigoration: “By imparting new meaning and dynamism to artisanship, dance, music, literature, and the oral epic, the colonized subject restructures his own perception. The world no longer seems doomed. Conditions are ripe for the inevitable confrontation” (176). According to Fanon, “this energy, these new forms, are linked to the maturing of the national consciousness and now become increasingly objectivized and institutionalized. Hence the need for nationhood at all costs” (176-77). All of this leads to “one fundamental question”: “What is the relationship between the struggle, the political or armed conflict, and culture? During the conflict is culture put on hold? Is the national struggle a cultural manifestation? Must we conclude that the liberation struggle, though beneficial for culture a posteriori, is in itself a negation of culture? In other words, is the liberation struggle a cultural phenomenon?” (178). For Fanon, “the conscious, organized struggle undertaken by a colonized people in order to restore national sovereignty constitutes the greatest cultural manifestation that exists” (178). That successful struggle leads to the demise of colonialism and of the colonized: “This new humanity, for itself and for others, inevitably defines a new humanism. This new humanism is written into the objectives and methods of the struggle” (178). In fact, “the future of culture and the richness of a national culture are also based on the values that inspired the struggle for freedom” (179).
“If man is judged by his acts, then I would say that the most urgent thing today for the African intellectual is the building of his nation,” Fanon concludes:
If this act is true, i.e., if it expresses the manifest will of the people, if it reflects the restlessness of the African peoples, then it will necessarily lead to the discovery and advancement of universalizing values. Far then from distancing it from other nations, it is the national liberation that puts the nation on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives. And this dual emergence, in fact, is the unique focus of all culture. (180)
This, I think, is Fanon’s way of resolving the apparent conflict between the universal and the particular. And it is also his way of subordinating cultural expression to “the manifest will of the people,” to the struggle for liberation. As I recall, ideas about political engagement in literature were not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s, and I wonder to what extent Fanon’s arguments here are drawing on them. Perhaps what I’ve been seeing as annoying prescriptiveness was, at the time, a common perspective on the relationship between art and culture, on the one hand, and politics and political struggle, on the other.
Fanon’s fifth chapter, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” begins with a defence of its inclusion in the book: “Perhaps the reader will find these notes on psychiatry out of place or untimely in a book like this,” Fanon writes. “There is absolutely nothing we can do about that” (181). Clearly he feels compelled to include this chapter, which is mostly a collection of case histories or notes of patients he treated in Algeria, in the book. In my reading, this chapter is about the different ways that PTSD is expressed in people affected by both colonization and the national liberation conflict. Fanon emphasizes the former in his introduction, however: “Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: ‘Who am I in reality?’” (182). “The defensive positions born of this violent confrontation between the colonized and the colonial constitute a structure which then reveals the colonized personality,” he continues. “In order to understand this ‘sensibility’ we need only to study and appreciate the scope and depth of the wounds inflicted on the colonized during a single day under a colonial regime” (182). As he typically does, Fanon sees armed conflict as the way such wounds can be healed: “When colonization remains unchallenged by armed resistance, when the sum of harmful stimulants exceeds a certain threshold, the colonized’s defenses collapse, and many of them end up in psychiatric institutions” (182). Of course, the armed resistance can become another form of “harmful stimulants”—at least, many of the people Fanon treated, and whose case notes he presents, were damaged not only by colonialism, but by the armed conflict against the colonizer. I’m skipping over the details of the case histories Fanon presents here, but he treats both victims of colonial violence, fighters against that violence, and the perpetrators of that violence and their families—including a French soldier who tortures Algerian revolutionaries. All of them, in my reading, are damaged by the violence they have experienced, witnessed, or perpetrated. Nobody engages in armed conflict and emerges without psychological scars.
Nevertheless, Fanon continues to believe in the power of collective political violence:
the aim of the militant engaged in armed combat, in a national struggle, is to assess the daily humiliations inflicted on man by colonial oppression. . . . The militant very often realizes that not only must he hunt down the enemy forces but also the core of despair crystallized in the body of the colonized. The period of oppression is harrowing, but the liberation struggle’s rehabilitation of man fosters a process of reintegration that is extremely productive and decisive. (219)
“The combat waged by a people for their liberation leads them, depending on the circumstances, either to reject or to explode the so-called truths sown in their consciousness by the colonial regime, military occupation, and economic exploitation,” he continues. “And only the armed struggle can effectively exorcize these lies about man that subordinate and literally mutilate the more conscious-minded among us” (220). Armed conflict is the only way that the colonized can reassert their humanity:
As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being. You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer’s body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at last be restored to their human dimension. (221)
One way that the French colonizers in Algeria denied the humanity of Algerians was by dwelling on Algerian criminality. They considered the criminal behaviour of the Algerians to be congenital, apparently, according to the examples Fanon provides. “Today everyone on our side knows that criminality is not the result of the Algerian’s congenital nature nor the configuration of his nervous system,” he writes. Instead,
in the colonial situation the colonized are confronted with themselves. They tend to use each other as a screen. Each prevents his neighbor from seeing the national enemy. . . . Exposed to daily incitement to murder resulting from famine, eviction from his room for unpaid rent, a mother’s withered breast, children who are nothing but skin and bone, the closure of a worksite and the jobless who hang around the foreman like crows, the colonized subject comes to see his fellow man as a relentless enemy. (230-31)
So that criminal behaviour was the product of the colonial situation. However, Fanon continues,
everything has changed since the war of national liberation. The entire reserves of a family or metcha can be offered to a passing company of soldiers in a single evening. A family can lend its only donkey to carry a wounded fighter. And when several days later the owner learns the animal was gunned down by a plane he will not sling curses or threats. Instead of questioning the death of his donkey he will anxiously ask whether the wounded man is safe and sound. (232)
As usual, Fanon is idealizing the peasants: is anyone really that perfect, that committed to the struggle that they will sacrifice their only draught animal to the cause without complaint? Maybe the peasants in Algeria were that engaged in the liberation struggle, and maybe I’m just being cynical.
In any case, Fanon argues that the criminality the French complained about, and sent experts to study, was caused by their oppression of the Algerians: “In a context of oppression like that of Algeria, for the colonized, living does not mean embodying a set of values, does not mean integrating oneself into the coherent, constructive development of a world. To live simply means not to die. To exist means staying alive” (232). In such an environment, stealing something valuable from someone, something they need to survive, is tantamount to attempted murder (232). “The criminality of the Algerian, his impulsiveness, the savagery of his murders are not, therefore, the consequence of how his nervous system is organized or specific character traits, but the direct result of the colonial situation,” he writes (233). “Once again, the colonized subject fights in order to put an end to domination,” Fanon concludes:
But he must also ensure that all the untruths planted within him by the oppressor are eliminated. In a colonial regime such as the one in Algeria the ideas taught by colonialism impacted not only the European minority but also the Algeria. Total liberation involves every facet of the personality. The ambush or the skirmish, the torture or the massacre of one’s comrades entrenches the determination to win, revives the unconscious and nurtures the imagination. When the nation in its totality is set in motion, the new man is not an a posteriori creation of this nation, but coexists with it, matures with it, and triumphs with it. This dialectical prerequisite explains the resistance to accommodating forms of colonization or window dressing. Independence is not a magic ritual but an indispensable condition for men and women to exist in true liberation, in other words to master all the material resources necessary for a radical transformation of society. (233)
Again, we see the claim that revolutionary violence is salutary rather than scarring, that it “revives the unconscious and nurtures the imagination” rather than crippling both. It’s a claim I find hard to accept, and one which the evidence provided in Fanon’s own case notes would tend to disprove.
Finally, Fanon comes to a conclusion. It is time to take sides, he writes: “We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let us not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world” (235). “For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure,’” he continues. “Look at it now teetering between atomic destruction and spiritual disintegration” (235). The future lies with the newly independent, formerly colonized countries, rather than with Europe:
The Third World must start over a new history of man which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man, the pathological dismembering of his functions and the erosion of his unity, and in the context of the community, the fracture, the stratification and the bloody tensions fed by class, and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, the racial hatred, slavery, exploitation and, above all, the bloodless genocide whereby one and a half billion men have been written off. (238)
“So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it,” Fanon continues. “Humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation” (239). Instead, “[f]or Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new man” (239).
The Wretched of the Earth is a powerful read, and although I have a lot of questions about Fanon’s argument—particularly his belief in the unifying and healing power of violence—his analysis of the effects of colonization is, I would think, exactly right. It certainly conforms to the kinds of things I’ve seen and read about here in Canada. Maybe that analysis is what I should take from reading The Wretched of the Earth, and maybe I should leave his discussion of violence aside. Perhaps I’m not completely sold on his evocation of the power of violence because, first of all, as a Settler, I can easily imagine myself being the victim (if that’s the right word) of anticolonial violence. What separates Canadians from the pieds noirs, the French settlers (who included in their number Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida) who lived in, and were often born in, Algeria? Not a lot. But I wouldn’t want to be forced into a situation where I would perpetrate that kind of violence, either. Perhaps he’s right, and that decolonization can only be achieved through violent struggle. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that there is another way forward. Fanon would likely describe my reaction as naive. And maybe he would be right. But at the same time, I think he is romanticizing violence, and I don’t see the point of doing that.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, 1961, translated by Richard Philcox, Grove, 2004.