by Kevin Donnely

“[Brecht] would have been delighted, I like to think, at an argument, not for his greatness, or his canonicity, nor even for some new and unexpected value of posterity … as rather for his usefulness”.i

Introduction

I can still remember clearly the first time I encountered Frantz Fanon, and it was not the happiest of experiences. It was around 1997 and I was in my first year at university as a mature student on a youth and community studies course. As part of this, my tutor set an essay in which we were to demonstrate how radical, non-formal, education had been influenced by a number of key thinkers – we were to choose one from a list and one of the choices was Fanon.



However ,researching the assignment – firstly by approaching Fanon directly through his key texts, particularly Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth – proved to be a truly bewildering experience. Here was indeed a strange ‘bricolage’ of literary references, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, medical terminology used in unusual contexts (the political, sociological) and reflections on negritudeii.

The Wretched of the Earth in particular appeared to be a mix of generalisations (about colonialism, Africa), ‘folded up’ into specific experiences (around Martinique, Algeria) only to then be ‘folded out’ to present Fanon’s unique take on ‘Third Worldism’iii.

The question then was (and still is), why bother? How actually relevant is Fanon 52 years after his last published work? Certainly his influence is commonly viewed as having been at its peak during the 1960s and the New Left. However, a counter-argument can be put forward that there has been a resurgence recently, particularly in academic circles associated with cultural studies and specifically on campuses in the United States.iv

I was also intrigued by the claim made by David Macey in Frantz Fanon A Lifev that Fehrat Abbasvi, when asked to write the preface for Studies in a Dying Colonialism, stated that he considered Fanon the only “authentic Marxist” of the Algerian Revolution. What did Abbas mean by this (if indeed he actually said it)?

The central question is therefore, how useful is Fanon in a “post-Cold-War, market rhetorical situation”vii? In other words, is Fanon’s political message now merely of academic interest (and therefore didactic in a narrow sense) or do his theories still resonate in the (revolutionary) sense of connecting (political) education with (class) struggle (and therefore didactic in the Marxist sense of the word)?

Fanon’s Life

Before answering this question, some background information might be in order. This is not the place, nor is there the space, to outline a detailed biography of the man – for that I would recommend Macey’s biography. But, for those unfamiliar with Fanon: he was born in Martinique in 1925; after serving with distinction in the French army during World War 2, he became a doctor, later specialising in psychiatry; and in 1954 he accepted a post as a psychiatrist in Algeria. There, Fanon was able to witness the effects of colonisation first-hand; and, through these experiences, he joined, and then became an important figure in, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He was later appointed as ambassador of the provisional government of Algeria (GPRA) to Ghana; and it was during his period that he discovered he had leukemia. He died from this in 1961.

Fanon’s Work

Fanon left behind a relatively small corpus of work, stretching from Black Skin, White Masks (1953) via Studies in a Dying Colonialism (1959) and Wretched of the Earth (1961) to, posthumously, Towards the African Revolution (1964). It was soon after his death that debates began to emerge around the nature of his work, particularly in relation to: his engagement with Marxism; the (problematic) role of violence in bringing about revolutionary change; the need to rethink class conflict in a colonial context; and the role of the colonised in this struggle.

Reading his Work

So, in terms of reading Fanon, where to begin? A late twentieth century anthology Fanon: A Critical Readerviii suggests a 5-stage approach to this:

Applications of his work, and critical debates surrounding it; for example, how his work has been applied in revolutionary practice, and its reception by mainstream Marxism shortly after his death.

Biographical work.

Research into his influence on political theory.

His corresponding influence on postmodern cultural and postcolonial studies.

His influence on original work across the full gamut of human studies.

The central claim made by the authors is that, far from there being a resurgence in interest in his work, Fanon’s influence has continued to grow and resonate throughout the years since his death, and has informed a diverse range of disciplines and practices as a consequence. However, another influential work, Frantz Fanon: Critical perspectives4, has put forward a more complex picture, in that each of these stages is in turn marked by significant internal disagreements and debates.

In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon himself was highly critical of much of the social science research into the colonialism of his time, since this framed colonisation in a positive light, as the next stage of a civilising process, with the colonised waiting expectantly for the coloniser to bring the gifts of ‘civilisation’ to their shores. What these approaches completely missed for Fanon is the point that he pithily makes, that colonialism’s aim is to destroy existing cultures:

“If, for instance, Martians undertook to colonise the earth men – not to initiate them into Martian culture but to colonise them – we should be doubtful of the persistence of any earth personality.”ix

Postcolonialism

It is arguably with regard to the question of colonialism that Fanon’s work had the greatest impact in recent times, particularly in the context of postcolonial studies, and it is therefore to this area that we now turn. We need to start this by defining what postcolonial means, as a specific category of enquiry. This is important as the term is distinct from, but often confused with post-colonialism, which is a term normally used in a historical context, as in aftercolonialism.

Postcolonialism on the other hand recognises that many of the material conditions and modes of representation from colonial times are still present in post-colonial societies, as in the case of neocolonialism, for example; while, on the other, it recognises the ongoing necessity for bringing about change in these societies (and the challenges this will bring with it). The term is also notoriously imprecise and therefore covers a diverse range of meanings. In a positive sense, this diversity can be articulated in different ways as an enabling concept. However, the downside is that this plurality can lead to a great deal of confusion – for example it can cover work around diaspora identities, (national) culture and colonial discourses, to name but a few. For sake of this discussion therefore – and in a literary context – we can define it here as involving:

The reading of texts by writers from countries with a history of colonialism and which are concerned with its legacy/ongoing impact.

Readings relating to the colonial diaspora.

Re-reading texts in relation to theories of colonial discourse.

Discourse refers to the way in which, in a colonial system, language and power of empire intersect, transmitting and reinforcing the value system of the coloniser which in turn is internalised by the colonised – through the colonial education system for example. The key term above is of course reading, but not in a neutral way; instead, postcolonialism issues a challenge to the representations and modes of perception contained within colonial discourses and asks us in turn to rethink conventional readings of these texts.

Fanon and Colonialism

Fanon’s work has, it could be argued, made some important contributions to this. In Black Skin, White Masks, for example, he powerfully sets out to demonstrate how the colonised are objectified by the coloniser and defined as subhuman, and are therefore unable to determine their own identities which are instead made for them, in this case by the dominant French culture.

In mostly psychological terms, he then sets out the cost of this to the colonised subject who internalises their idea of self as the (inferior) other, sealed into “crushing objecthood”x and leading in turn to trauma and subjugation. As Fanon puts it, remembering an experience in France whereby a young white boy pointed to him and said, “Mama, see the Negro, I’m frightened! Frightened! Frightened!”xi,

“On that day, completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed and made myself an object.”xii

Also:

“I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found I was an object in the midst of other objects.”11

Fanon and Postcolonialism

To a certain extent, it could be argued that many of the early anti-colonial writings were often limited by accepting colonial forms of knowledge – for example, in terms of national representations and the way anti-colonial nationalist writing has sometimes mimicked the prescriptive tendencies and national chauvinism of the dominant powers. In postcolonial terms, therefore, any form of nationalism is invariably viewed in a pejorative light. Another problem with postcolonial studies is that colonialism is often analysed in a purely textual way rather than through an analysis of the concrete, material and socio-economic conditions which underpin the system.

Aspects of Fanon’s work in particular have been sanitised for, and appropriated by, an academic audience, particularly in the United States;10 and of course the problem with (mis)appropriation is that its purpose is often to nullify the political power of an ideology or movement. Has Fanon’s work therefore been assimilated and (mis)appropriated and hence lost its (political) bite?

Fanon and Marxism

It important at this point to remember that Fanon’s writings were inextricably shaped by concrete, material conditions at important stages in his life: as a man of colour; as an Antillean with an ambivalent relationship with both African and French culture; as a psychiatrist in Algeria, and so on. For example, in Black Skin, White Masks, although he primarily takes a psychological approach to the problem of race, he also recognises that it is:

“… the economic and social conditions of class conflicts that explain and determine the real conditions in which individual sexuality expresses itself.”xiii

This then leads us to a central question – was Fanon a Marxist? A straightforward Marxist reading of Fanon has always been open to interpretation, contested and therefore highly problematic. For example, Macey states that any debate around Fanon and Marxism invariably gets off to a false start:

“Fanon shows little interest in Marxist theory and, whilst he had obviously absorbed its general principles, there is no sign that he ever studied it in any depth. It was only because Rheda Malekxiv gave him a copy of it that he read the chapters on the ‘force theory’ (theorie de la violence in French) in Engel’s Anti-Duhring; he found it ‘too mild’ and inappropriate in the Algerian context.”xv

These are not new criticisms: for example, Jack Woddis states that Fanon, in his denunciation of colonialism, lacks analytical power and is often instead given to “over-grand exaggeration, and a conclusion which leads nowhere and which therefore is quite quickly contradicted by some equally grandiloquent judgements.”xvi

Woddis’s critique particularly centres on the role of class and the issue of violence. With respect to the latter in particular, he accuses Fanon of making “almost a mystique out of violence”,xvii and supports this with a quote from Fanon:

“Violence, alone, violence committed by the people, violence organised and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.”xviii

For Woddis, on the other hand, the violence in the colonial system was inherent and explainable with reference to “particular methods and forms of exploitation – forced labour, poll tax, migrant Labour ….”17 In other words, it was largely discriminate and a necessary means to achieve specific political and economic ends.

What is interesting in the Fanon quote above however is his reference to the people, as it could be argued that this seemingly innocuous term says much about Fanon’s attitude to class relations in a colonial context. In this, Fanon places a particular emphasis on the role of the peasantry, linking this in turn to the issue of violence:

“The peasantry is systematically disregarded for the most part by the propaganda put out by the nationalist parties. And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays.”xix

For Woddis, these ideas were at best contradictory – for example, how could the peasantry potentially fulfil a role as a revolutionary force, in fact, the sole revolutionary force, if they are the most conservative stratum of society? At worst, Woddis believed that this led to Fanon downplaying the role of the working class who, Fanon considered, belonged in a colonial context to the bourgeois stratum of society:

“In capitalist countries, the working class has nothing to lose … in the colonial countries the working class has everything to lose; in reality it represents the fraction of the colonised nation which is necessary and irreplaceable if the colonial machine is to run smoothly …. It is these elements which constitute also the ‘bourgeois’ fraction of the colonised people.”xx

If not the working class, then to whom were the peasantry to turn for support? Fanon had an answer to this in the revolutionary potential he ascribed to the lumpenproletariat. However, Fanon’s conception of this is at odds with a conventional Marxist understanding of this category, which in extreme conditions of crisis may become detached from their class and form a ‘free-floating’ stratum which is then particularly vulnerable to reactionary influences. For Fanon on the other hand, the lumpenproletariat,

“… once it is constituted, brings all its forces to endanger the ‘security’ of the town, and is the sign of the irrevocable decay, the gangrene ever present at the heart of colonial domination .... These classless idlers will by militant and decisive action discover the path that leads to nationhood.”xxi

For Woddis, therefore, Fanon’s approach to the question of class was not only contradictory but also unscientific; and this was particularly the case with regard to the importance Fanon placed on both the peasantry and the lumpenproletariat, who, as the leading revolutionary actors and through voluntary and autonomous action, would bring about a national revolution on behalf of the (nebulous) people. In this, the urban working class is allocated a minor role as “small islands of struggle within the fortress of colonialism”;xxii although, Woddis says, Fanon does acknowledge that trade union power could play an important role during the “decisive phase of the of the fight for independence.”22

The evidence above suggests that Fanon’s views were closer to Maoism – as in “the image of a revolutionary process as the surrounding of the cities by the countryside”xxiii – or even to that of Bakunin and the idea of the revolutionary outlaw, than to a conventional Marxist perspective. However, Fanon also maintained in The Wretched of the Earth that the connection between his theory of colonial identities and Marxism could not be reduced simply to a question of class struggle:

“You are rich because you are white. You are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.”xxiv

This can be illustrated with reference to another key Marxist category –commodity fetishism; that is, how under capitalism the social organisation of labour is mediated through commodity exchange. Through this, (subjective) social relationships(between people) involved in production are transformed into (objective) economic relations between things (money, commodities) which in turn obscure the true relations of production.

In Capital Volume 1, Marx drew parallels between commodity fetishism and religion:

“In order therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”xxv

There are obviously major differences between religious and commodity fetishism, not least in the fact that commodities do have a real existence. However, what is important to note here is that commodity fetishism can be made the basis for theories of alienation or reification. Utilising this further, Jaqueline Crowellxxvi has drawn on parallels between commodity and racial fetishism and applied this to Fanon’s work around colonial identity.

By racial fetishism is meant how biological and cultural categories replace the money-form, replicate the structure of monetised relations of capitalism and reflect the concrete reality of colonialism more closely than Marx’s dialectics of class struggle. As Crowell states:

“In the theories of Marx and Fanon, both theorists argue that the societies that they analyse each represent ‘a world cut in two’. Marx argues that this is constituted by the conflict between the ‘compartments’ of the capitalist and the worker, whereas the tension between the coloniser and colonised native replace this class struggle within Fanon’s colonial context. Because colonialism lacks the exchange relations of capitalism, Fanon’s analysis adapts Marx’s theory to colonialism by purporting that the colonial social relations assess value, not through the money-form, but instead, through the whiteness of one’s skin.”xxvii

(Re) Reading Black Skin, White Masks

It could be argued that the above reading of Fanon is flawed in that it also fails to recognise how (racial) oppression is inseparable from the material conditions from which it arises, and that this must necessarily include the class struggle as it pertains to the colonial situation – once again class relations are underdetermined in this reading. However, what is of value is the way this disarticulates the question of race from a purely economic context, opening it up to all forms of exploitation and therefore offering a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of the structures that conceal oppression under colonialism.

This is particularly clear in Black Skin, White Masks with respect to Fanon’s critique of Sartre’s view that race can be collapsed into class. As Sartre puts it, “negritude appears as the minor term in a dialectical progression” and therefore the “subjective, existential, ethnic idea of negritude ‘passes’, as Hegel puts it, into the objective, positive, exact idea of proletariat.”xxviii Fanon on the other hand challenged this as downplaying the role of racial categories; and although he eventually became critical of negritude, there are also obvious connections between this philosophy and Marxism, not least in how it can inform Marxism as a global theory into oppression, embracing race, gender, class and capital, and underpinned by both material (socio-economic) and non-material (ideological) conditions – encompassing race and class, in other words.

This touches on one of the central methodological issues of Marxism (or of social sciences in general, for that matter) – how do you order the (often competing) empirical outcomes thrown up by the material conditions under investigation? and can any analysis of oppression in particular be undertaken independent of any one aspect, whether that be in relation to class, race or gender, for example?

(Re)Reading Studies in a Dying Colonialism

Another area in which Fanon has often been heavily criticised is in relation to gender politics.xxix Much of this is justified and some of it has centred on the way that Fanon portrays Algerian women in the chapter ‘Algeria Unveiled’ in the above text. In this, Fanon’s views on the veil are ambiguous, to say the least. For example, what is to be made of the following?

“The woman, seen in her white veil unifies the perception one has of Algerian feminine society.”xxx

and

“With the veil, things become well-defined and ordered. The Algerian woman, in the eyes of the observer, is unmistakably ‘she who hides behind the veil’.”xxxi

On the other hand, it could be argued that there is no ambiguity in Fanon’s analysis on the role women played in the Algerian revolution, how their fight for liberation as women played a significant part in the struggle and whose role was:

“...an authentic birth in a pure state, without preliminary instruction. There is no character to imitate. On the contrary, there is an intense dramatisation, a continuity between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman rises directly to the level of tragedy.”31

From a Marxist-feminist perspective, therefore, engaging with Fanon is an opportunity to enrich our understanding on how gender politics plays out in a postcolonial context and in connecting the struggle for independence with the fight for justice and the end of patriarchy.

(Re)Reading The Wretched of the Earth:

One aspect of this text that even Woddis was complimentary about was in relation to the national question:

“He writes splendidly and with wide knowledge on the question of national culture and its influence on the national democratic revolution.”17

Other Marxists have been more critical. Some have attacked Fanon for his nationalism whilst others have attacked his views on both national liberation and Marxism as being two sides of the same (Eurocentric) coin.xxxii However, in various passages of his text Fanon does seem to be attuned to the specifics and positive aspects of precolonial social and cultural formations. This is particularly evident even in the chapter ‘Concerning Violence’ in which, as Neil Lazarus has said:

“Fanon celebrates as profoundly democratic the ‘traditional’ protocols of public culture in Africa.”32

Furthermore, in the essay On National Culture there is “a good deal of informed and appreciative discussion on the styles, themes, tonalities and registers of various pre-colonial cultural practices.”xxxiii

The important point to make here is that, in drawing attention to precolonial modes of cultural production, Fanon is not arguing for a return to a distinctive precolonial past but instead is highlighting how the logic of colonialism destroys these pre-existing cultural practices, and internalises colonial practices in the colonised. But he is also pointing the way forward to how a post-colonial future might be organised around socialist lines:

“The immobility to which the native is condemned can only be called in question if the native decides to put an end to the history of colonisation – the history of pillage – and to bring into existence the history of the nation – the history of decolonisation.”xxxiv


Crucial to Fanon’s understanding of national culture is his outlining of this as being dynamic and responsive to historical change. In this, there can be no return to the past (real or imagined) nor can the development of a truly progressive national consciousness be left to a (Western-educated) elite. Fanon points to the problem of neocolonialism in the chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’.

Fanon’s critical analysis of nationalism and (internalised) colonialism can therefore underpin radical pedagogical approaches in which the community is assigned a crucial role in the educational process and in the development of national consciousness, therefore challenging existing school systems based on hierarchies of differentiation and inequality:

“Both cultural action and cultural revolution imply communion between the leaders and the people, as subjects who are transforming reality.”xxxv

Conclusion

This article has attempted to tease out the alternatives available to us in Fanon’s writings and to move our understanding of his work beyond the preconceived ideas and prejudices that have informed his legacy. However, this is far from being an easy task as his work is neither a doctrine – there is no such thing as Fanonism – nor is it presented to us in a systematic way. Any engagement with Fanon therefore requires a careful reading of his work as there are many Fanons contained within these texts.

My Fanon has also been based on a highly selective reading of his work and I hope that this selection has done some justice to the arguments I have attempted to set out in the article. However, a word of warning is required at this point – in constantly reinventing and reviving Fanon, we may be in danger of losing sight of his usefulness. If there can be a postmodern Fanon, a Fanon of queer theory, a feminist Fanon or even a Marxist Fanon then where do you draw the line? Why not a finance-capital Fanon?

What this article hopefully demonstrates, however, is that Fanon can be read in a useful way, in particular in a way that largely eschews the fetishisation of violence as applied to Fanon, initially by the New Left. This has tended to cloud debates and disagreements around the use of his work ever since, with the result that his ideas are still (mis)applied with tragic consequences.

These tasks are even more pressing considering the current situation of a world dominated by the market and globalisation, by commodification and financial speculation. More specifically, this domination manifests itself in the humanitarian crisis created by the West, in which the “wretched of the earth” are no longer far away in a remote part of the world and only made visible through the medium of television; they are encamped at Calais; they are sitting in a bedroom next door on the internet.

Lastly, and returning once again to my first encounter with Fanon all those years ago, I now realise in retrospect that this experience not only presented me with an academic challenge, but also a direct challenge to myself as the other; as a white/British/male/sexual being. Engaging fully with Fanon is therefore much more than a political challenge; it also presents challenges to all of us in terms of our ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexuality and gender.

Notes and References in magazine

  • Literary works cannot be taken over like factories, or literary forms of expression like industrial methods. Realist writing, of which history offers many widely varying examples, is likewise conditioned by the question of how, when and for what class it is made use of.
    Bertholt Brecht Playwright and Poet (1898-1956)
  • The efforts of toil have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini
    Freidrich Engels The Dialectics of Nature
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