Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ at Sixty: A Philosophical Review

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One of the earliest postcolonial theorists, the Afro-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon (1925- 1961) made profound philosophical contributions to the freedom struggles of the colonised people around the globe. Born as the descendant of a slave, under the French colonial yoke in the Caribbean Island of Martinique, Fanon began his illustrious career as a soldier. He fought for the French Army in the Second World War in the African continent and gained first-hand experience of racism and colonialism in action. The horrors of the Second World War profoundly influenced him and inspired him to switch his career path to psychiatry. Fanon’s interactions with patients suffering from psychotic disorders provided the intellectual impetus for him to develop theories on colonial psychoanalytic practices — kick-starting his journey of a revolutionary philosopher (Leander, 2014).

First published in 1961, Fanon’s seminal work The Wretched of the Earth — which remains a source of inspiration for many freedom-struggles on earth and the focus of this essay — is the product of his accumulated insights in French-occupied Algeria, where he emigrated to practice psychiatry. In Algeria, the revolutionary struggle for independence was in full swing at that period. Working under the colonial medical structure, Fanon realised how the psychiatric theories of that time were biased against the people of colour. These theories deemed the violent outbursts of the native patients as pathological problems — results of their supposed innate savagery. Fanon, who treated both Arab natives and French policemen, makes a counterargument in his book: It was instead the colonial structure of the Algerian society that engendered violent behaviours and psychological disorders in both colonised and coloniser (Nicholls, n.d.).

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon also puts forth his critique of the Manichaean world system in the Cold War era, the abolition of which — he deemed — would usher in a new age of ‘postcolonial humanism’ in the former colonies. Fanon, furthermore, warns of the vacuity of national consciousness that could easily lead to a regression from state to a tribe — inhibiting the development of national unity. He envisioned the emergence of a world system of Third-World nations — based on the twin pillars of national unity and international solidarity (Bhabha, 2005, p. xv). However, the end of the Cold War led to the creation of a unipolar world; international solidarity remains a far cry as global superpowers continue to dominate the global institutions. Fanon’s thoughts were shaped by his experiences in the colonial world and the Cold War era’s political dynamics. Nonetheless, from a contemporary perspective, this essay will critically reflect on Fanon’s philosophical arguments on decolonisation in The Wretched of the Earth and investigate how relevant these arguments are sixty years later, in the twenty-first century.


Violence as a ritual of intellectual ablution

Fanon’s seminal discussion on decolonisation in The Wretched of the Earth begins with exploring the colonial world’s dichotomy — between the coloniser and colonised. It is the coloniser, Fanon argues, who moulds the identity of the colonised. Under colonialism, the subjugation of the colonised is a quotidian reality; maintained by scrutiny and brute force. The colonised, born and raised in such grim reality, can only resort to violence if they are to heal themselves from the corporal and spectral wounds, inflicted by colonialism. Fanon thus argues, “…decolonisation is always a violent event” (Fanon, 2005, p. 1). During the liberation struggles, the violent urges innate to men, previously vented through dance and rituals, are redirected towards the colonists.

Unlike Marx, who viewed the societal structure divided across distinct classes, Fanon identifies the colonised world compartmentalised across racial lines. In the colonial world, Fanon argues, it is one’s skin tone that determines to which class they would belong. He delineated racial identity as the base and the economic infrastructure as the superstructure in a colonised society (Fanon, 2005, p. 5). Fanon’s thesis could be extrapolated in the postcolonial developed world as well. For example, in the United States, poverty rates among ethnic minorities, such as the African Americans, are disproportionately higher compared to the majority of White Americans. Racial discrimination is proven to be a significant factor behind such economic inequality.

Fanon warns the readers about the various subversive tactics the coloniser often employed to subvert the decolonisation process. When the colonised people challenge the status-quo of the colonial state-apparatus, the coloniser might appeal to reason and the supposed supreme values cherished by the coloniser which they claim are reliable and worthwhile to preserve. The coloniser might resort to political chicanery by promising improvements in the fields of culture, values, or technology. However, the colonised would remain impervious to such lures. They consider the restoration of their natural dignity intertwined with the retrieval of their land, a radically different paradigm when contrasted with the perceptions of human dignity peddled by the coloniser. For the colonised, being a moralist means eviction of the coloniser, bringing an end to the spiral of colonial violence. For Fanon, the dictum of equality among human beings will become a reality in the colonies only when the colonised declare themselves equal to the coloniser (Fanon, 2005, p. 9).

In his book, Fanon reserves particular attention for the decolonisation process of the native intellectuals, whose emancipation he deemed is crucial for the decolonisation of a colonised society. After a certain period, an obsequious native intellectual begins to question their position in the colonised society. After much introspection, the servile native intellectuals — who once blindly accepted the coloniser’s supposed universal values — finally cast off the straitjacket of a colonist-imposed worldview that long clouded their intellect and join the rank and file of the liberation movement. They are introduced to a new revolutionary vocabulary, long verboten by the colonial authorities. In the minds of the native intellectuals, words such as “Brother”, “Sister” and “Comrade” evoke a keen sense of solidarity with their compatriots (Fanon, 2005, p. 11).

Fanon argues that violence acts as a ritual of intellectual ablution at the individual level that restores the self-confidence of the colonised and enables them to overcome their long-harboured inferiority complex. Any independence achieved through ordinary people’s violent engagement also eliminates any necessity to attribute individual merit to the leaders of the independence struggle. The emergence of a messiah is thus rendered void as people hold a constant vigil to thwart the rise of any future demagogue (Fanon, 2005, p. 51).

Critics, however, rightly pointed out how Fanon’s portrayal of the colonial world is contoured by his experiences in Africa and the Caribbean, with scant attention given towards the colonised in Asia and Latin America (Macey, 2012, p. 469). His emphasis on violence, which he deems to be the key to emancipation for the colonised, could be challenged by bringing forth the examples of successful anti-colonial movements based on nonviolence. The Indian independence movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi, was mostly non-violent that successfully brought an end to the British Colonial rule in India. As Gandhi argued, nonviolence is a useful tool that people could employ from all walks of life and all age groups, from children to elderly (Nanda, n.d.). However, in Fanon’s defence, it could also be argued that the non-violent movement only delayed India’s independence, and it did not necessarily contribute to the decolonisation of the Indian mind. It was instead the weakened status of Great Britain after the Second World War and the emergence of a robust Indian National Army under the leadership of the famous nationalist revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose which made British rule in India no longer tenable (McQuade, 2016). Moreover, we should bear in mind that decolonisation and national independence are not synonymous. The exploitative British colonial structure instilled a colonial mindset in the minds of many of India’s post-independence leaders who often follow the rulebook of their British predecessors (Carey, 2013).

Fanon envisioned a future decolonised global society built on socialist ideals — devoid of capitalistic greed. He called for the redistribution of wealth stolen from the colonies, the end of the Cold War and advocated for generous investment and technical aid in the nascent postcolonial states. Fanon frankly acknowledged that bringing the European governments on board would be an arduous task. He, therefore, encourages the European masses to wake from their slumber and join hands with the wretched of the third world (Fanon, 2005, p. 62). However, almost six decades later since the publication of his book, Fanon’s vision seems utopian at best as the European masses are yet to heed to his clarion call. Moreover, it also raises an important question for political philosophy: Would such a future society be attainable without abolishing the modern-nation states? How would a sense of solidarity germinate as long as humanity divides itself based on ethnic and religious allegiances and across national borders?


When nationalism goes rogue

Fanon also investigates the dichotomy within the colonised society — the fault lines that divide nationalist parties and masses. He contends that a nationalist party’s ideals are often imported from the West and similar to those of metropolitan business elite. The nationalist parties in the colonised world are primarily focused on the urban proletariat, a paltry minority of the overall population. Compared to the rural masses, the urban proletariat areprivileged, ardent supporters of the nationalist parties, and form the indispensable cogs of the colonial machinery (Fanon, 2005, p. 64). The nationalist parties nonchalantly dismiss the rural masses living in the countryside as inert and pay no heed to their ordeal. In response, the rural masses begin to identify the urban elites as cohorts of the European coloniser. Thus, a new cleavage appears among the colonised, between those who turned the colonial system to their advantage and those who could not — paving the way for the coloniser to exploit such antagonism to their favour (Fanon, 2005, pp. 66–67).

Fanon observes that the will of the nationalist parties to evict colonialism is parochial at best, manifested by their willingness of remaining on good terms with the colonial authorities. The intellectually atrophied party leaders denounce the aspirations of the revolutionary party members as mere juvenile delinquency. Banished from the party echelons, hounded by the colonial authorities, the revolutionaries seek refuge among the rural masses. In the rural peripheries, the revolutionaries rediscover the rural people as compassionate, brim-full of revolutionary fervour. Through a reciprocal arrangement, the revolutionaries provide the rural masses with military and political training in exchange for their guidance and shelter — preparing the grounds for an armed struggle (Fanon, 2005, pp. 73–74).

However, could it be that Fanon was too optimistic about the political consciousness of the rural populace? Marginalised rural groups, who have little sway on mainstream politics, often find it challenging to develop a nuanced understanding of the political climate and are not immune to developing Manichean worldviews. It would, therefore, be wrong to assume that revolutions that gain momentum in the countryside always represent the interests of the Wretched. Often such movements fall in thrall to extremist groups who do more harm than good to the future of a nation. The origins of the extremist groups like the Taliban and the Islamist revolutionary movement in Iran could be traced back to the countryside. Both Afghanistan and Iran, to this day, are reeling from the pains inflicted by revolutionary movements, once popular with the masses, which went awry (Hiro, 2014).

In the urban milieu — the epicentre of colonial power, closely guarded by colonial police and urban nationalist cadres — the revolutionaries often find it challenging to foment revolutionary zeal. Luckily, the revolutionary fervour germinates among an ostracised group of people — shunned to the peripheries of the urban sphere. The lumpenproletariat, the misfits who slipped through the cracks of the purview of nationalist agendas, who dwell in the shanty towns, hungry and desperate to join the urban proletariat ranks, form the urban spearhead of the revolutionary struggle (Fanon, 2005, pp. 80–81). By acknowledging the critical role of the lumpenproletariat, Fanon sets himself apart from Marx and aligns himself with Marx’s arch critic Bakunin. Unlike Marx, who deemed the proletariat as the sole leading revolutionary agent while he dismissed the lumpenproletariat as a parasitic group, Bakunin saw potential in the lumpenproletariat. The minds of the lumpenproletariat, Bakunin reckoned, because of their distance from the state apparatus, remain mostly unadulterated, and therefore, carry the seeds of future socialism (Dolgoff, 1980, p. 294).

Fanon reminds the revolutionaries of the conflicting realities that emerge during the national struggle and recommends adopting a nuanced position. National liberation does not guarantee that the privileged section of the colonised would give up on their lavish lifestyle and interests. “Some blacks can be whiter than the whites”, as Fanon puts it succinctly (Fanon, 2005, p. 93). Not all members of the coloniser are alike either; some of them distance themselves from their colonist peers and unabashedly condemn the colonial enterprise. The realisation of such multifaceted reality could help the colonised, and the foreign settlers look past their racial differences and explore their common humanity. Unfortunately, it transpired that Fanon’s forebodings became a reality. In postcolonial states like Zimbabwe, the forcibly imposed national land reform programs targeted the remaining settlers, exacerbated pre-existing ethnic tensions, and destroyed the country’s economy (BBC, 2019).

Fanon begins the third chapter with scathing criticism of the national bourgeoisie who assume the positions of power left vacant by the coloniser. Their intellectual vacuity turns them away from the path of innovation. Their focus on developing archaic local crafts is the reincarnation of a buried atavism. Instead of focusing more on inventing new products, they draw satisfaction from exporting raw materials to the Western manufacturers — diminishing the prospect of developing a national industry. Moreover, the national bourgeoisie resort to chauvinism and racism; they denigrate the minority ethnic communities and immigrants whom they blame for the nation’s ordeals (Fanon, 2005, pp. 99–100). It seems to be the case even long after a nation achieves independence. The Rwandan genocide, where the majority Hutu community slaughtered the minority Tutsi community, is a brutal testimony of the postcolonial ethnic fault lines that continue to engender violence (BBC, 2011).

Fanon sheds light on the postcolonial social schisms generated by the preferential treatment provided by the coloniser to specific regions. The inhabitants of these regions, desperate to cling on to their comfortable lifestyle, treat their wretched compatriots with contempt and wariness. Amidst the tumult, religious differences breed further antipathy towards national unity — different religious and ethnic groups take up arms against each other. At the supranational level, the religious tensions often morph into racial bigotry. Fanon notes how in the African continent, Arabs accuse Black Africans of savagery while Black Africans portray Arabs as misogynist religious fanatics (Fanon, 2005, p. 107).

Fanon, furthermore, distinguishes the Western bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie from the third world. The Western bourgeoisie purveys the ideal of human equality but would only accept the colonised equal if they meet the demands of the Western humanistic principles. The national bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is mired in fear of the other — manifested through ethnic tribalism and rivalry. Instead of rallying the nation towards achieving a common goal, the national bourgeoisie exploits the repressive state apparatus — bequeathed to them by the coloniser — to their own advantage. The scope for building a pluralistic national politics is nipped in the bud as the bourgeoisie tighten their control of the state by establishing a one-party rule. Since the national bourgeoisie fills their pockets by syphoning national resources to foreign companies, the national economic growth remains stagnant (Fanon, 2005, pp. 109–112). The Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said was profoundly influenced by Fanon’s portrayal of the national bourgeoisie. Said noted,

“Fanon was one of the few to remark on the dangers posed to a great socio-political movement like decolonisation by an untutored national consciousness” (Said, 1994, p. 307).

Fanon is firm in his belief that a postcolonial government should be the “direct expression of the masses” (Fanon, 2005, p. 151) and, furthermore, “no leader, how valuable, he may be, can substitute himself for the popular will” (Fanon, 2005, p. 165). Much to his chagrin, Fanon observes that to placate public furore, the national leaders, who once led the independence movement, metamorphose into the propaganda mouthpiece for the bourgeoisie who, meanwhile, continue to drain public coffers. Their message, couched in populist jargon, to the public is to reminisce past liberation struggles and the supposed progress made since the country’s emancipation from colonial rule. Nonetheless, reminiscing about either the halcyon days of liberation struggle or the toils under colonial rule does not fill empty stomachs. The banal political platitudes only draw the ire of the masses as they lose faith in national politics. Fanon shows eerie clairvoyance in his observations. In the nascent postcolonial states, from Latin America to East Asia, the moral and political decline of many national leaders bears testimony to this claim — who morphed from national heroes into obdurate tyrants (Fanon, 2005, p. 114).

Fanon’s theory on decolonisation not only earned many accolades but is subject to criticism as well. Critics have pointed out that in the African context; Fanon’s insistence on building the nascent nations based on national identity is problematic because the modern African national states are products of European conquests — arbitrarily divided on the false premises of tribalism, religious and lingual differences. It is not surprising that history is replete with examples of the national identities withering away when founded on such pseudo-premises (Caute, 1970, pp. 80– 81). While reading The Wretched of the Earth, the reader is not always sure whether Fanon is describing how decolonisation works or how it should work. Perinbam (1973) argued that such ambiguity resulted from Fanon’s personal involvement in the Algerian War of Independence. Some have accused him of neglecting colonial exploitation’s neo-colonial structures, which seriously dent a nascent nation’s economic potential (Burke, 1976).

Others have pointed out the negative consequences of armed struggles which Fanon seems to have fetishised. Fanon often prescribed the same insurgency model to countries that were not fully ready to follow Algeria’s suit. For example, Fanon condemned the Angolan nationalist for refusing to launch an insurgency campaign while not considering factors such as timing and local circumstances. Nonetheless, Fanon’s critics have high regard for his insightful contribution to the emancipation of the colonised from the chains of physical and intellectual subjugation. Fanon is considered the most inspirational figure in the worldwide struggle against colonialism in the 20th century. His ideas were repeatedly put into practice, often successfully. By the mid-1960s Fanon’s nuanced analysis of racism, violence and self-defence was picked up in the West. The Black Power movement in the United States used his ideas as a tool to fight the discriminations against the marginalised African American community (Zeilig, 2016, p. 261). As Fanon’s biographer David Macey puts it,

“Fanon was angry. His readers should be angry too. Angry that the wretched of the earth are still with us. Anger does not produce political programs for change, but it is perhaps the most basic political emotion. Without it, there is no hope” (Macey, 2012, p. 503).



In a postcolonial world and age of globalisation, how should we consider The Wretched of the Earth which many interpret as a handbook for decolonisation and nationalistic struggle? Are Fanon’s thoughts and contributions still relevant or mere relics of the past? Despite the recalibration of the international system, if we look more closely, we still live in a compartmentalised world. Global institutions are still run with a colonialist mindset. The colonisers may have left the colonies corporally, but they still dictate many third-world nations’ economic affairs. Colonialism has reincarnated in the shape of neo-colonialism where the former colonial empires use the global institutions like the World Bank, IMF to exploit the third world economically, culturally, and politically.

Fanon, therefore, remains influential because a critical reading of his work can help us to unravel this compartmentalised world. Although Fanon spent much of his time building national consciousness, he was an internationalist in his core. He wanted to transform the capitalistic world into his desired, a more humanistic and socialistic, mould. From the Arab Spring to the Wall Street Movement, wherever there is a struggle for equality, the revolutionaries remember Fanon as a source of inspiration. The Wretched of the world need Fanon’s deep insights that will guide them throughout their revolutionary journey and at the same time caution them against the pitfalls of toxic jingoism and the dangers posed by the national bourgeoisie. In an age of Climate Change, we need to rein in the long-unchecked capitalistic greed. We must seek an alternative that does not discriminate along the lines of class, race, and gender. If we are to abolish the vast, intricate network of exploitation generated by this dichotomous world, we must look back into the history of struggles for decolonisation. To achieve this objective, what better source of inspiration and knowledge is out there other than ‘The Wretched of the Earth’?

Image source: Internet



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