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Frantz Fanon: Third world revolutionary

By Martin Evans


Frantz Fanon died of leukaemia on 6 December 1961 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, USA where he had sought treatment for his cancer.  At Fanon’s request, his body was returned to Algeria and buried with full military honours by the Algerian National Army of Liberation, shortly after the publication of his most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth. As a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which had been engaged in a war against French colonial rule in Algeria since November 1954, Fanon had made his mark as a journalist for the FLN newspaper El-Moudjahid.  Writing in an angry and confrontational style, Fanon justified FLN violence as mirror violence: a liberational act against the inherent violence of colonial rule.  This in turn became the core of his argument in The Wretched of the Earth.  Expanding outwards from Algeria to the rest of Africa and Asia, Fanon talked of violence in mystical terms – a necessary stage in the forward march of history that would purge Africans and Asians of any inferiority complex in regard to European colonial powers.

Born in 1925 in Fort-de-France on the French-ruled Caribbean island of Martinique, Frantz Fanon opposed the right-wing anti-Semitic Vichy Regime which was established in the wake of the Third Republic’s defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940.  Horrified by the widespread support for Vichy amongst the island’s colonial authorities, Fanon took flight in 1943 and made his way to French Algeria, which had passed into Free French hands after the USA and British landings in November 1942.  There he joined the Free French forces, fighting in Italy and then Germany where he was wounded in the back during the Alsace campaign.  Decorated for bravery, Fanon stayed on in France to study psychiatry and medicine at Lyon University.

Living in France confronted Fanon with the racial contradictions of French republican ideology.  It made him realise that for all the talk of liberty, equality, fraternity espoused by the Fourth Republic, a French Caribbean man like himself would never be seen as a true citizen.  The Republic might claim to be universal but in reality his presence was unnerving for a French society where whiteness was the norm and blackness was equated with evil.  It was a painful experience that led him to write his first book, Black Skins, White Masks, in 1952.  Published by Seuil, this was a pioneering study of racism as a psychological system where, Fanon argued, black people were forced to adopt white masks to survive in a white society.

In October 1953 Fanon began working as psychiatrist in a hospital in Blida just south of Algiers.  At this point French Algeria was fraught with racial tension.  Nine million Algerians co-existed uneasily with one million European settlers.  France had invaded Algeria in 1830 and annexed the country not as a colony but an integral part of France. On 8 May 1945, just as Nazi Germany was defeated, mass nationalist demonstrations across Algeria had called for the establishment of an independent Algerian state.  In the town of Sétif in the east of the country, these demonstrations produced violent clashes that led to the death of twenty-one Europeans and ignited an Algerian uprising. However, the French response was brutal and throughout May eastern Algerian was subjected to systematic repression. Yet, although French order was restored, fear and mistrust was everywhere. More than ever the settlers  were determined to thwart any concessions to the Algerian majority and the result was a blocked society. Frustrated at their lack of political rights, a small number of Algerians formed the FLN in October 1954 which, through a series of coordinated attacks across Algeria on 1 November, sought to overthrow colonialism through violence.

As Algeria slid into war, Fanon saw the psychological impact of French rule at first hand.  Struck by the number of Algerian patients suffering from mental-health problems, Fanon came to interpret these as symptoms of colonial domination.   If Algerians felt morbid and depressed, he concluded, this was because colonialism had made them so by continually denigrating them as racially inferior.  In this sense, Fanon concluded, colonialism was a subtle web of oppression that was economic, political and psychological.

During his tenure in Blida Fanon was also horrified by the stories of torture his patients — both French torturers and Algerian torture victims — told him.  This reinforced his view on the inherent violence of the colonial system, initiating a process of separation that led Fanon to formally resign his post in 1956.  In his resignation letter to Robert Lacoste, a French Socialist Party deputy and Minister-Resident for Algeria in the left of centre Republican Front government, Fanon vented his anger on the ethics of French medical practice.  Outlining his theory of the psychology of colonial domination, Fanon pronounced the colonial mission to be incompatible with proper psychiatric practice:

If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization. . . . The events in Algeria are the logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralize a people.

Thereafter Fanon escaped to join the FLN in Tunis where he became a journalist. Charting the contours of the FLN struggle, his 1959 book, L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne (subsequently published in English as A Dying Colonialism), presented this as a revolutionary one. The FLN, Fanon claimed, was not trying to turn society backwards to a pre-1830 conservative ideal. The needs of the revolutionary struggle were creating the seeds of a different, forward thinking society. So, by carrying weapons and planting bombs, Algerian women were breaking away from the confines of tradition.  They were inventing new roles for themselves that would lead to a completely new female identity

His most militant and far-reaching work was The Wretched of the Earth, published like A Dying Colonialism by the French radical publisher François Maspero.  In it Fanon saw Algeria as the microcosm of a general Third World Revolutionary movement in Africa and Asia. Controversially, Fanon claimed that at the core of this movement was violence which was a purifying act: a necessary response to colonial power through which Africans and Asians would free themselves of racial humiliation.  Thus liberated, Fanon continued, Africa and Asia could now turn away from Europe and start a new type of revolutionary society.

The Wretched of the Earth contained a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre that embraced Fanon’s vision. Within it Sartre warned that Europeans that they would find the book disturbing.  Why? Because Fanon shows that, having thrown off colonialism, Asians and Africans no longer need Europe:

Europeans, you must open this book and enter into it. After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centres and to the hired soldiers who defend them. They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home: their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls… Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound and perished with cold. Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.

This was why, Sartre underlined, Fanon was so significant. With The Wretched of the Earth he showed how the location of the revolutionary change had shifted in the mid-twentieth century.  It was no longer to be found in the industrial proletariat of Lille or Manchester, whose revolutionary impulses had been dulled by the booming economic miracle in Western Europe, but amongst the dispossessed peasantry of the Third World.

During the 1960s The Wretched of the Earth became an iconic text of the new 1960s radical movement.  It was the classic vindication of the Algerian cause and a permanent indictment of colonialism which had a global resonance. This influence was explicit in the other international icon to emerge from independent Algeria, the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. Directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo and winner of the prestigious Venice film prize, the film’s depiction of the role of Algerian women, either using the veil for hiding weapons, or discarding it to pass themselves off in a decoy fashion, drew heavily upon Fanon’s interpretations.  Moreover, the film’s unflinching portrayal of the FLN’s attacks on civilian targets distilled into celluloid form Fanon’s theory of revolutionary violence, namely that terrorism is justified and wins.

Fanon’s message had an enduring message throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  In France he inspired revolutionaries such as Georges Mattéi, Gérard Chaliand and François Maspero who founded the journal Partisans in November 1961.  Convinced that the European working class was now inherently reformist, all three looked to the dispossessed peasantry in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For this reason the February 1962 issue was dedicated to the recently deceased Fanon who had given;

A new direction to their thinking, their decisions, their political acts and their very lives.

In the USA Fanon became a starting point for the Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 in San Francisco by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, which espoused a revolutionary, far-left politics that underlined black self-determination and pride.  While from Cape Verde to through to Angola and Mozambique, Fanon inspired other Africans fighting colonialism, not least Nelson Mandela in South Africa who visited FLN training camps in Morocco in early 1962 and saw in the Algeria ‘the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority’.

Yet, even if the Third World Revolutionary moment is now over, Fanon still exerts a crucial intellectual influence, not just in our understanding of racism but also as a key reference point in post-colonialism, one of the major theoretical debates of the last thirty years.  Thus both Edward Said and Homi Bhabha look back to Fanon.  For them Fanon’s legacy raises unresolved questions about power, race and cultural representation which continue to be pivotal as the post-colonial world grapples with the aftermath of Western colonialism.

Martin Evans is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth and author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. You can read more by Professor Evans here.

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