Reading Fanon in the XNUMXst Century

Image: Marcio Costa

Presentation of the political trajectory and work of Franz Fanon

The topicality of Frantz Fanon's thought is discussed, around three main axes that constitute as many dilemmas – the use of violence, the affirmation of identity and the class struggle –, demonstrating how, in the present time, these issues continue to be decisive in the fight for a fairer and more solidary world-system.

Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique, in 1925, and died of leukemia, too young, in 1961. In 1952, already a physician and psychiatrist, he published his first book, Black skin, white masks [black skin white masks, EdUFBA]. It is a remarkable work, which had some impact in the intellectual circles of France at the time. Was a cri de coeur passionate about expressing his “experience of a black man immersed in a white world”, words that Francis Jeanson, author of the preface, used to summarize the theme of the book.

Fanon says in the introduction that overcoming the black man's alienation would require more than Freud provided. Freud had defended the need to move from a phylogenetic explanation to an ontogenetic explanation, but, according to Fanon, what was needed was a sociogenic explanation, even if he recognized the limitations of this type of explanation, reminding the reader: “I irreducibly belong to the my time” (Fanon, 1971: 10). Fanon's time was the 1950s.

The book had a second life in English thirty years later, when it became a central text in the postmodern canon. But it was by no means a call to identity politics. Quite the opposite. On the final page of the book, the author makes a very clear statement of the reasons why politics should not be pursued: “The misfortune of the colored man is to have been enslaved. The disgrace and inhumanity of the white person is having killed a human being somewhere. They are, even today, the fact of rationally organizing this dehumanization. But I, the man of color, inasmuch as it becomes impossible for me to exist at all, I have no right to retreat into a world of retroactive reparations. I, the man of color, want only one thing: That the instrument never dominates the human being. May the subjugation of man by man cease forever. I mean, from me to another. May I be allowed to discover and want the human being wherever he is. Black does not exist. Just as white does not exist” (Fanon, 1971: 187).

In France, where the author was living at the time, the 1950s were dominated by the Algerian war of independence, which began in 1954 and ended in 1962, a year after Fanon's death. In 1953, he was appointed director of the psychiatry service at the hospital in Blida, Algeria. It didn't take long for him to feel revolted by the stories of torture that his Algerian patients told him. Already a supporter of the Algerian cause, he resigned his post and went to Tunisia to work full time for the Provisional Gouvernement of the Algérienne Revolution (GPRA).

He wrote numerous texts for El Mujahid, the official newspaper of the revolution. In 1960, the GPRA sent him as an ambassador to Ghana, which, in those years, was the effective center of the movement for African unity. It was in Accra, Ghana, that I met him in 1960 and it was there that we had long discussions about the world political situation.

Fanon fell ill with leukemia and went first to the Soviet Union and then to the United States to undergo treatments that proved unsuccessful. I was able to talk to him in the hospital, where we had discussions centered on the Black Panther movement that was emerging in the United States and with which he was fascinated.

In the last year of his life he devoted himself chiefly and with all fury to writing the book which was published posthumously as The damned of the earth [The Damned of the Earth, Ed. UFJF]. The book features a famous preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, which Fanon thought was brilliant. The title, of course, was taken from the first verse of the Internationale, the anthem of the world labor movement.

It was this book, and not the first, that won Fanon a worldwide reputation, including, of course, in the United States. The book became almost a bible for all those involved in the many and diverse movements that culminated in the world revolution of 1968. After the flames of 1968 had died down, Fanon's work withdrew to a less turbulent corner. And, at the end of the eighties, the various identity and post-colonial movements discovered the first book, to which they lavished their attention, largely without understanding what Fanon meant by it. Whatever Fanon was, he was not a postmodernist. Rather, he could be characterized as part Freudian Marxist, part Freudian Marxist, and, fundamentally, fully committed to revolutionary liberation movements.

the last sentence of Black skin, white masks is the following: “My last prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions!” (Fanon: 1971: 188). It is in this spirit of questioning that I present my reflections on the usefulness of Fanon's thought for the XNUMXst century.

Reading Fanon in the XNUMXst Century

When rereading his books, there are two things that strike me: the first is the extent to which they make very high-sounding statements about which Fanon seems very sure, especially when he is being critical of others. The second is that these statements are usually followed, sometimes many pages later, by Fanon's formulation of his uncertainties about the best way to proceed, about how one can achieve what one has to achieve.

It also strikes me, as it did Sartre, the degree to which these books are by no means addressed to the powerful of the world, but rather to the “damned of the earth”, a category that, for the author, is largely coincident with “ people of color”. Fanon is always infuriated with the powerful, who are both cruel and condescending. But he is even more enraged by people of color whose behavior and attitudes contribute to maintaining the world of inequalities and humiliation and who often behave this way just to get a few crumbs for themselves.

I will organize my reflections around what I believe to be three dilemmas for Fanon: the use of violence, the affirmation of identity and the class struggle. What did he give to The damned of the earth So powerful and attracted so much attention – admiring and condemning – was the first sentence of the opening essay, “Of Violence”: “National liberation, national rebirth, restitution of the nation to the people, Commonwealth, whatever the figures used or the new formulas that are introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon”. (Fanon, 2002: 39)

Immediately, and almost inevitably, the reader asks himself whether this is an analytical observation or a policy recommendation. And, of course, the answer might be that the idea is that it's both. Perhaps Fanon himself is not sure which of the two senses takes precedence. And maybe that, to him, doesn't matter. Readers' reaction to this ambiguous early period is arguably more a function of the reader's psyche than the author's.

The idea that fundamental social transformation never occurs without violence was not new. It was part of the radical emancipatory traditions of the 1945th century. They all believed that the privileged never cede real power willingly and/or voluntarily; power is always taken from them. This belief constituted a large part of what defined the difference that was thought to exist between a “reformist” and a “revolutionary” path of social transformation. The problem is that, precisely in the post-XNUMX period, the usefulness of the distinction between “revolution” and “reform” was being diluted – being diluted even among the militants of the most impatient, angry and intransigent movements. And, as a result, the use of violence, not as a sociological analysis but as a policy recommendation, was becoming problematic.

If the “revolutionary” movements, once in possession of state power, seemed to carry out far fewer transformations than they had promised, it was no less true that the “reformist” movements, once in power, did not do much better. Hence the ambivalence regarding the policy recommendation. Algerian nationalists had lived their own biographical cycles. Ferhat Abbas, the GPRA's first president, had spent the first thirty years of his political life as a reformist, eventually admitting that he and his movement had gotten nowhere. He came to the conclusion that violent insurrection was the only tactic that made sense if Algeria did not want to remain a colony forever, an “enslaved” colony.

Fanon essentially seems to be defending three theses about violence as a political tactic. In the first place, in the “Manichaean” colonial world, the original source of violence is to be found in the recurrent violent acts of the colonizer: “Anyone who was constantly told that he only understood the language of force decides to express himself by force. In fact, the settler had always pointed out to him the path that should be his, if he wanted to free himself. The argument chosen by the colonized was indicated to him by the colonist and, in an ironic turn of events, it is the colonized who now claims that the colonizer only understands force” (Fanon, 2002: 81).

The second thesis is that this violence transforms the social psychology, the political culture, of those who were colonized. “But it so happens that, for the colonized people, this violence, because it constitutes their only job, has positive, formative characteristics. This violent praxis is totalizing, since each one becomes a violent link in the great chain, in the great violent organism that emerges as a reaction to the colonialist's first violence. The groups recognize each other and the future nation is already undivided. The armed struggle mobilizes the people, that is, it throws them in one direction only” (Fanon, 2002: 89-90).

The third thesis, however, is in the rest of the work and seems to contradict the extremely optimistic tone of the second thesis, the seemingly irreversible path to national liberation, human liberation. In fact, the second chapter of the work is entitled “Greatness and weakness of spontaneity” and the third chapter is entitled “Mishaps of national conscience”. These chapters are particularly fascinating in light of the first chapter on violence, written as they were during the ongoing Algerian liberation war.

Chapter two is a generalized critique of nationalist movements, whose “congenital vice”, says Fanon, “is to address primarily the most conscious elements: the proletariat of the cities, artisans and officials, that is to say, a tiny part of the population. which does not represent much more than one percent […] The nationalist parties, in the immense majority, harbor a great distrust of the rural masses. […] The westernized elements nurture, in relation to the peasant masses, feelings that are reminiscent of those we find within the proletariat of the industrialized countries” (Fanon, 2002: 108-110).

This congenital vice is precisely what prevents them from being revolutionary movements, which cannot be based on the westernized proletariat, but on the newly urbanized and uprooted peasantry: “It is in this mass, it is in these people of the slums, in the within the lumpenproletariat, that the insurrection will find its urban spearhead. The lumpenproletariat, this legion of detribalized starving people, separated from their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people” (Fanon, 2002: 125).

Fanon was here obviously influenced by the battle of Algiers and the role it played in the Algerian revolution. He moves from this hymn to the detribalized lumpenproletariat to an analysis of the nature of nationalist movements once they come to power. He is fierce and implacable and denounces these movements in one of the most famous sentences of his book: “The single party is the modern form of bourgeois dictatorship without a mask, without disguise, without scruples, cynical” (Fanon, 2002: 159). And he says the following of these nationalist movements in power in one-party states: “The reasons for combating the bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries do not consist in the risk of it hindering the overall and harmonious development of the nation. It is necessary to make a resolute opposition to it because, literally, it is of no use” (Fanon, 2002: 168-169).

And, starting from here, Fanon proceeds to a pure and simple denunciation of nationalism: “Nationalism is not a political doctrine, it is not a program. If you really want to avoid these setbacks, these setbacks, these shortcomings in your country, you need to move quickly from national awareness to political and social awareness. […] A bourgeoisie that gives the masses the only food for nationalism fails in its mission and is necessarily subject to a series of mishaps” (Fanon, 2002: 192-193).

Algeria's national liberation movement, the National Liberation Front (FLN), was not yet in power. Fanon was not yet criticizing her. We will never know what he could have written two years later, ten years later, we can at best deduce it.

The assertion of identity

It is at this point that Fanon turns to questions of identity, my second theme. He starts the discussion by saying that, of course, boasting about ancient civilizations doesn't feed anyone these days. But this serves the legitimate purpose of taking distance from Western culture. The racialization of culture was, initially, the responsibility of the white colonizers: “It is quite true that those largely responsible for this racialization of thought […] are and continue to be Europeans, who have never ceased to oppose white culture to other non-cultures [ …]. The concept of blackness, for example, was the affective, or even logical, antithesis of this insult that the white man hurled at humanity” (Fanon, 2002: 202-203).

But, says Fanon: “This historic obligation to racialize the claims in which African men of culture found themselves […] will lead them to an impasse” (Fanon, 2002: 204).

In his 1959 communication to the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists, reproduced as Chapter 4, “On National Culture”, Fanon is very critical of any attempt to assert a cultural identity that is independent of the political struggle for national liberation or is not inserted into it. “Imagining that black culture is going to be made is strangely forgetting that black people are on the verge of disappearing [...]. There will be no black culture, because no politician has the vocation to give birth to black republics. The problem is to know the place these men intend to reserve for their people, the type of social relations they decide to establish, the conception they have of the future of humanity. That's what counts. Everything else is literature and mystification” (Fanon, 2002: 222-223).

His final tirade is at the antipodes of identity politics. “If man is what he makes, then we would say that the most urgent thing today for the African intellectual is the construction of his nation. If this construction is true, that is, if it translates the manifest will of the people, if it reveals the African peoples in their impatience, then national construction is necessarily accompanied by the discovery and promotion of universalizing values. Far, therefore, from distancing itself from other nations, it is national liberation that makes the nation present on the historical scene. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness rises and comes to life. And this double emergence is, ultimately, nothing but the essence of all culture” (Fanon, 2002: 235).

But later, in his Conclusion, as if he had exaggerated the insufficient assertion of the merits of a different path to Africa, a non-European path, Fanon points to the example of the United States, which had taken as its objective to catch up with Europe and they had been so successful that “they became a monster in which Europe's flaws, diseases and inhumanity reached terrifying dimensions” (Fanon, 2002: 302).

For Fanon, therefore, “Africa should not try to “catch up” with Europe, to become a third Europe. Quite the contrary: Humanity expects something different from us from this caricatured and, on the whole, obscene imitation. If we want to transform Africa into a new Europe, America into a new Europe, then let us entrust the destinies of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do better than the most gifted of us. But if we want humanity to climb one more step, if we want to take it to a level different from the one Europe has given it to the manifesto, then it is necessary to invent, it is necessary to discover. […] For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, it is necessary to change procedures, develop new thinking, try to put a new man on his feet” (Fanon, 2002: 304-305).

In Fanon's meandering path, in both works, around the issue of cultural identity, of national identity, we find the fundamental dilemma that has plagued all antisystemic thinking in the last half century and, probably, will also plague the next half century. The rejection of European universalism is fundamental to the rejection of pan-European dominance and its rhetoric of power in the structure of the modern world-system, what Aníbal Quijano has called the “coloniality of power”. But, at the same time, all those who committed themselves to the struggle for an egalitarian world, in what can be called the historical socialist aspiration, are very aware of what Fanon called the “mishaps of national conscience”. Therefore, its path is winding. The path for all of us is winding. And will continue to be. Because taking a winding path is the only way to stay more or less on the path to a future where, in Fanon's words, “humanity climbs one more link”.

the class struggle

And this then brings us to the third theme, the class struggle. Class struggle is never centrally discussed as such anywhere in Fanon's works. And yet it is central to his view of the world and analyzes of it. It is evident that Fanon was brought up in a Marxist culture – in Martinique, in France, in Algeria. The language he knew and that of everyone he worked with was steeped in Marxist premises and vocabulary. But at the same time, Fanon and those he worked with had vigorously rebelled against the fossilized Marxism of the communist movements of his day. Aimé Césaire's book, Speech on colonialism, has remained the classic expression of the reasons why the intellectuals of the colonial world (and, evidently, not only them) abandoned their commitment to the communist parties and affirmed a revised version of the class struggle.

The key issue in the debates on the class struggle is the question of knowing which classes are in struggle. For a long time, the debate was dominated by the Marxist categories of parties – the German Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The basic thesis was that, in the modern capitalist world, the two classes that were engaged in a fundamental struggle and dominated the scene were the urban industrial bourgeoisie and the urban industrial proletariat. All other groupings were residues of dead or dying structures and were destined to disappear, as they all merged, defining themselves as bourgeois and proletarian.

At the time Fanon was writing, there were relatively few people who considered this an adequate or even reliable summary of the real situation. On the one hand, the urban industrial proletariat not only was not even close to becoming the majority of the world's population, but in general it did not appear to be a group that had nothing to lose but its chains. As a result, most movements and intellectuals were looking for a different framework of class struggle, one that was better suited as a sociological analysis and more useful as a basis for radical politics. There were many proposals for new candidates for a historical subject capable of being the spearhead of revolutionary activity. Fanon thought he had located it in the detribalized and urbanized lumpen proletariat. But he admitted his doubts when he outlined the "weaknesses of spontaneity".

In the end, what remains of Fanon is more than passion and more than a project of political action. We have a glowing picture of our collective predicaments. Without violence, we can achieve nothing. But violence, however therapeutic and effective it may be, solves nothing. Without breaking with the domination by pan-European culture, we will not be able to move forward. But the stubborn assertion of our particularity is absurd and inevitably leads to “mishaps”. Class struggle is central, as long as we know which classes are really struggling. But the lumpen classes by themselves, without an organizational structure, are exhausted.

We find ourselves, as Fanon expected, in the long transition from our existing capitalist world-system to something else. It is a fight whose outcome is completely uncertain. Fanon may not have said this, but his works bear witness that he foresaw it. The possibility of collectively getting out of this struggle and ending up with a better world-system than the one we have now depends to a large extent on our ability to face the three dilemmas discussed by Fanon. Facing these dilemmas and dealing with them in a way that is both analytically intelligent and morally committed todésale” for which Fanon fought and politically suited to the realities we have to confront.

*Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019) was a senior professor at Yale University (USA). Author, among other books, of Historical capitalism and capitalist civilization(Counterpoint).

Translation: Antonio Sousa Ribeiro

Originally published on new left review


Fanon, Frantz (1971). Black skin, white masks. Paris: Seuil.

Fanon, Frantz (2002). The damned of the earth. Paris: La Découverte.



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