- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Frantz Fanon was one of the most influential revolutionary thinkers of the last century. Born in Martinique, Fanon played an active role in the Algerian struggle for independence. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon transformed our understanding of racism and European colonial rule — all this in a life that ended at the age of thirty-six.
Peter Hudis teaches philosophy at Oakton Community College. He is the author of Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades.
What was the particular context of Martinique and the French-ruled Caribbean into which Frantz Fanon was born, and how did it differ from the French colonies in Africa, for example?
Martinique, like other French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, or Spanish-speaking areas in the Caribbean over the years, was a colonial settler state. It was similar, in a certain sense, to some of the African colonies of France. It was a deeply racist society in which there was profound racial segregation.
This was a situation where historically, the vast majority of people who constituted the population of Martinique were blacks from Africa, with a small ruling elite which consisted of either French settlers or Creoles. They dominated the entire life of the society, economically and politically — certainly in the period that Fanon was growing up — while representing, however, no more than a few percentage points of the population.
Fanon himself grew up in a somewhat sheltered environment, in a middle-class or, you might say, lower-middle-class family. The mark of status in a colonial situation like the French Caribbean was language. If you spoke and wrote in “good” French instead of creole, this was a marker of potential upward mobility. His family, especially his mother, took great pains to encourage that development in him. He was fluent in French from an early age and became quite proficient in it.
That was an important phenomenon, because in the French colonial system, blacks in the Caribbean were seen as being on a somewhat higher level than blacks in sub-Saharan Africa, and even on a somewhat higher level than Arabs in North Africa, because of their connection to the French language. As Fanon often stated, when he grew up, to a large extent, he and his friends and family didn’t particularly define themselves in terms of an African identity.
That was something that began to change when he was a teenager, in response to developments occurring on the island, especially surrounding the outbreak of World War II. Before that, he thought of himself as a part of France — to the point that as a teenager he volunteered to fight on the side of the Free French during World War II. After all, Martinique and Guadeloupe were part of metropolitan France.
Of course, there was resistance among the black populace to the discrimination that was meted out against them. But Fanon only became radicalized once he left Martinique. It was under the impact of his experience of World War II.
The Caribbean had been the site of arguably the first anti-colonial revolution, the great slave revolt in Haiti, long before the European conquest of Africa had actually been completed. Would that have been a reference point for Fanon, either in his youth or at a later stage in his life?
Yes, definitely. He didn’t actually write that much directly about the Haitian Revolution, but you can see the impact of it throughout his work, implicitly at the very least — and also by negative example. What I mean is that Fanon spoke to it even when not speaking directly of it, insofar as he had the Haitian Revolution in the back of his mind in discussing a great many issues. This is especially evident in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, but in his very earliest writings as well.
He often discussed the fact that in the Lesser Antilles, freedom from slavery was not won as in Haiti, through a revolution. The end of slavery was achieved in 1848 by the French deciding to get out of the slave trade and grant abolition (it had earlier been abolished as an outcome of the French Revolution in 1792, but Napoleon had restored slavery shortly afterward). This was always something that weighed upon him: whereas in Haiti, they had fought for their freedom and achieved it at great cost, in the Lesser Antilles, that didn’t happen.
It was always the sense that when you’re given freedom on a platter — so-called freedom, even the most limited freedoms that you can say were provided by the French with the abolition of slavery — it is not the same as the kind of profound social transformation that comes from seizing your own destiny and being able to liberate yourself. This was a current that ran throughout his thought. He continuously came back to the need to effect social change through the self-activity of the revolutionary subject.
How important was Fanon’s experience of serving with De Gaulle’s Free French Army during the Second World War?
That was a very interesting episode in his life, which I think shows two things. One, he volunteered to fight for the Free French. Martinique had been separated, so to speak, from France by the Nazi invasion and conquest of 1940. The French fleet departed and got away from the Nazis. Part of it ended up in Martinique, and after some deliberation, they decided to ally themselves with the Free French of Charles de Gaulle. A call went out for volunteers to help the Free French liberate France.
Fanon was seventeen years old when this call went out. He was a very idealistic young man. He saw himself as part of the French context, but more importantly, he had this incredible idealism that permeated him. As he said in a well-quoted letter: Where freedom is denied to one person, it’s denied to everyone, and I cannot walk away from a fight to liberate a nation from oppression. I must do my task and take part in this as well.
His high-school teacher at the time was one of the main founders and figures of Négritude, Aimé Césaire. He tried to dissuade him from joining the Free French on the grounds that this was a white man’s war: it wasn’t a black man’s fight, one way or the other. Fanon didn’t listen to that: he enlisted in the Free French with these idealistic motivations.
But it had a very important impact on him because of the extent and depth of the racism — which had been evident, of course, when he grew up in Martinique, but was so much more amplified in his experience of the so-called Free French military. The officers were all white, and blacks were treated quite miserably.
He saw how blacks were treated in North Africa when he was temporarily stationed in Algeria prior to taking part in the invasion of Southern France in 1944. He lost his illusions. I think Fanon always held to that idealism, by which I mean a concern for universal human liberation. He was not only concerned for himself or the liberation of his own kind. He always had a perspective of the liberation of humanity per se.
But in this case, he realized it was a misapplied idealism, and it became a very bitter experience for him. He was wounded in the war and spent quite a lot of time convalescing afterward, which gave him time to think about the mistake that he had made. This experience in the French Army clearly radicalized him.
You referred there to the movement of Négritude associated with figures like Aimé Césaire. Could you say a little more about the significance of that movement and the influence that it had on Fanon?
Négritude was a black pride movement — a literary, artistic, cultural, and political movement of primarily French-speaking black intellectuals of the African diaspora, with important figures in West Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. The founding figures were Aimé Césaire, the Senegalese writer Léopold Senghor, and others who developed a movement in the French language parallel, in some respects, to the Harlem Renaissance.
It was an effort to try and push back against the racist stereotypes of blacks and Africans as backward, savage, etc., and as lacking civilization or not having a history — a presumption that was widespread even in parts of the Left at the time — and to argue instead that there was a rich cultural and historical heritage that had to be recaptured in the course of fighting against contemporary colonialism. It was an important influence on Fanon from early on.
He was certainly attracted, not only to the general political aims of Négritude, but to its distinctive poetic and literary voice. Black Skin, White Masks is very much written in the style of Négritude poetry and literature. You can see the influence of Césaire in particular, who is quoted throughout Black Skin, White Masks.
But even in Black Skin, White Masks — his first book, which he published when he was twenty-six — you can see him also being wary of aspects of Négritude. Fanon was very suspicious and critical toward a kind of black essentialism that reacted against the denial of black agency, black history, or any authentic black existence apart from colonialism by holding that there is a common element of blackness that pervades the experiences of people of color, regardless of who they are and where they were living.
Fanon pushed back against that. He saw that kind of essentialism as something that was misapplied. There’s a famous phrase from Léopold Senghor that he quoted in Black Skin, White Masks. Senghor said that emotion is as Negro as reason is Greek. Senghor was actually paraphrasing from [Arthur de] Gobineau, the European arch-racist.
Fanon saw that Négritude, in a way, was what Hegel called in his work “spirit in self-estrangement”: you critique something, but in critiquing it, you’re actually the mirror image of what you’re critiquing. By positing a kind of black essentialism, you buy into a stereotypical view of blackness, while trying to turn it on its head. Fanon believed that approach could create illusions about an authentic African past that had to be returned to, which he had really no interest in. He was a person who was shaped by modernity and saw that the struggle for freedom had to be based on what was offered by modernity.
But I should mention at the same time that Black Skin, White Masks did not dismiss Négritude. He did not skip over it or call it a minor term. He did not say that it was just a way station on the way to the universal class struggle, and he criticized Jean-Paul Sartre for suggesting that.
Fanon argued that even if there were nonrational elements to the standpoint of Négritude that stood to be criticized, nevertheless, it was important in building up the subjectivity of the exploited black subject, by making the black subject realize and feel that pride of being who they are. Taking pride in the very attributes that a racist society denigrates in you is an essential moment in raising yourself up and being able to embolden yourself for that fight against colonialism and racism.
Later, as he moved on in his political and theoretical career, he became much more removed from Négritude. By the time he wrote The Wretched of the Earth, he was no longer interested in it. I think there were a couple of reasons for that.
One was that he was living as part of the revolutionary movement in Algeria, where the issue was not so much race as it was uniting the oppressed nationalities of Algeria, which were Arab, black African, Berber, etc., and leaving the door open for whites who broke from their privileges to join that revolutionary struggle to evict French colonialism and build a new society. Négritude didn’t really speak to that.
Secondly, he became increasingly critical of leaders of Négritude, especially Senghor, who became the leader of independent Senegal, for essentially accommodating to neocolonialism. They were so much in love with the French literary heritage that Senghor wanted to remain part of the French Community, which Fanon felt was a betrayal of the independence struggle. He thought that the Négritude movement was left behind by the movement of events in the African revolutions.
When it came time to pick up the gun and actually fight the imperialists for liberation, a lot of the figures associated with Négritude shied away from that. Aimé Césaire did not favor independence for Martinique, even though he was a communist at the time. Fanon moved away from Négritude, but its influence on him should not be underestimated.
Although Fanon came to define himself as a socialist and as an opponent of capitalism, he didn’t identify with any Marxist tendency of his own time. What do you think were the principal shortcomings of orthodox Marxism at that point in history when it came to race and the struggle against colonialism?
Within the socialist or communist movements, and even the Marxist component of those movements, that was certainly not unanimity when it came to deciding the position to take toward imperialism and colonialism. Some of the reformist socialists actually embraced or accommodated colonialism. Some forces in the Second International, for instance, were more than willing to live with colonial domination.
The revolutionary Marxists were not — they were very sharply opposed to colonialism — but there was a problem with them that Fanon saw, which made it impossible for him to identify directly with them. That was the assumption that the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the socialization of the economic resources of society in the hands of the proletariat would automatically lead to the negation and transcendence of race and racism.
This view is still widely held by some today, who would say that in order to eliminate racism, what has to be done is the transformation of the economic structure of society, understood as the abolition of private property, free markets, wage labor, etc. This is what will ultimately provide liberation for all exploited peoples everywhere. This was stated rather directly in such foundational documents as the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democrats (1891) and the program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (in 1903).
Fanon saw that these kinds of positions did not accord with his lived experience. He was not at all confident that the change of such economic structures was sufficient to ensure the deconstruction of race and racism. He fully understood that racism could not be abolished without the transformation of the economic conditions of capitalist society, but that that transformation, while necessary, was not sufficient.
There also had to be a transformation of the human relationships that made racialized ways of seeing, behaving, and interacting with others possible in the first place. It therefore involved taking a sociogenetic approach to race and racism by dealing with the psychological impact of both.
There wasn’t much for him to find in the Marxism of that time that would address such concerns. W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction developed an important theory, which has become very influential on modern-day theorists of race and racism, concerning the psychological wage. He argued that even when whites did not directly benefit economically from racism against blacks, they still gained a psychological edge: they could go where they want, attend the church they desired, travel without restriction, vote, etc., etc. This all added up to a psychological sense of superiority which invested them in the racism of US society.
There’s a famous story where Du Bois went back down south to witness and report on a lynching. He was quite shaken by this experience, of course, and said afterward: “Can we really explain racism by reference to economic or even purely psychological factors, such as matters of self-interest, or is there something so irrational about racial hatred that escapes that kind of framework?”
I think that is something that Fanon had an ear to: racism could not be overcome without structural changes in the economy, but it could not rest upon that alone. There had to be a transformation in our human character. That’s why he repeatedly talked throughout his works about the struggle against racism being a struggle to end the depersonalization of the individual subject, who was subjected to the racial discrimination that is endemic to colonialism and neocolonialism.
How did Fanon end up working in Algeria in the 1950s and what impact did his presence in that country during its war of independence have on this thinking?
It was almost by accident. He got his degree in psychiatry in 1952. Black Skin, White Masks was originally written as his dissertation for his psychiatric degree. Of course, the department thought that was ridiculous because it was such an unconventional work. They rejected it for his degree, so he turned around and wrote another dissertation on a more technical subject in psychiatry, which is a very insightful work in itself. It’s only been made fully available in English in the last two or three years, in the collection Alienation and Revolution.
In any case, upon getting his degree, he worked at various psychiatric clinics in France and had a mixed experience at them. He began to learn a technique from the Spanish psychotherapist and psychiatrist François Tosquelles which was called sociotherapy. It was a liberatory approach to the practice of psychiatry. He tried to test it out in some of the clinics at which he was working in France, but he ran into resistance.
He was getting to be sick of France anyway, and he thought for a moment of going back to Martinique and practicing psychiatry there, but the opportunities weren’t particularly great on an island of one hundred thousand or so people. He decided to try sub-Saharan Africa instead. There was a psychiatric clinic in Dakar, Senegal. Fanon wrote to Léopold Senghor asking if he could recommend him for the job in the clinic, but Senghor never answered the letter, so that job prospect didn’t come through. Then he saw that there was a job opening in Algeria and he went there.
He didn’t go to Algeria because there was an ongoing revolutionary independence movement. That did not really emerge overground until almost a year after Fanon arrived. In November 1954, the National Liberation Front, or FLN, launched a series of attacks against the French colonial authorities and announced the beginning of the revolution. He didn’t go there for explicitly political reasons, although you can say that political motivations certainly guided him in his decision to leave Europe and work in Africa.
What role did Fanon play in the FLN as a revolutionary militant?
The role he played was wide-ranging. At first, he was not a militant when he came to Algeria. His first contact with radical nationalists came through Jewish Algerians, with whom he became acquainted through his wife, and then his circle of acquaintances expanded. He began getting to know activists in the FLN underground.
As he threw himself into involvement with this revolutionary movement, he could not do so openly because he was heading a psychiatric clinic. It would, of course, be the end of his position if he ever breathed any sign of support for the revolution. But he surreptitiously used the clinic to aid revolutionary fighters.
He hid guerrillas who were being chased, and he conducted psychiatric treatment on those who were subjected to torture by the French authorities. He was using his place in the hospital, within the limits that were afforded to him, to give direct aid to the revolutionary cause.
At the same time, and increasingly so after 1955, he became more deeply embedded in the discussions within the FLN leadership over the course of the revolution and the nature of the struggle. He became associated with a wing of the FLN that was led by Ramdane Abane, a left-winger who thought that one of the problems of the FLN and the nationalist movement in general was not being clear about the kind of society they wished to establish after the achievement of independence.
Abane took a radical position and wanted to try and bring the revolutionary movement into the urban areas with the famous battle of Algiers. That was something that Fanon supported very strongly. The battle of Algiers was an initiative that came out of the tendency associated with Abane.
Of course, it proved to be a defeat for the FLN, and that’s why they increasingly relied on peasant recruits and fighting from the countryside. Attacks in the cities nevertheless continued as well. But the point is that Fanon was involved in a lot of the discussions and debates about the tactics and strategy to be adopted within the FLN. He wasn’t at the famous conference that had deliberated upon some of these issues, but he was at later conferences that were held by the underground.
Eventually, of course, the French forced him out. He got word that he could either be arrested or assassinated by the French because they were suspicious of his activities at the hospital. He wrote a famous letter of resignation, left Algeria, and then went to Tunisia, where he became one of the chief editors of the FLN newspaper, El Moudjahid, which was published in both French and Arabic. Many of his articles in that newspaper were translated and published in the book Toward the African Revolution, but others have only appeared for the first time in English quite recently.
He was certainly critically engaged in the FLN, both within Algeria and then later from exile in Tunisia and Morocco. During the last two years of his life, he became the Algerian government-in-exile’s roving ambassador for sub-Saharan Africa. He was based in Accra, Ghana, where he got to know Kwame Nkrumah and other leaders of the African revolutions firsthand. He travelled throughout the African continent, trying to support their struggles, but especially trying to generate support for the Algerian struggle, which he saw as the pivot of the revolutionary struggle in Africa.
How did Fanon perceive the role of the French left in all its various forms during the Algerian war of independence?
People have to understand that the French left played a very despicable role toward the Algerian revolution. The Socialist Party under Guy Mollet imposed the crackdown in Algeria with martial law when they were in power. They were no friends of the Algerian revolutionary struggle, and neither was the French Communist Party, despite its verbal commitment to Leninist principles of anti-colonialism, because the Communists consistently tail-ended, or supported in one way or another, French colonial policy in Algeria. They gave lip service to the idea of self-determination for Algeria, but they did not mobilize any opposition to the war.
Fanon was thoroughly disgusted with both of these parties. Fanon is famously associated with a critique of neocolonialism, which refers to the idea that newly independent countries in Africa and elsewhere would throw off colonialism on a political level but nevertheless remain enmeshed within the economic dominance of the colonial powers. The first time that I’m aware of Fanon using the term “neocolonialism” was in a critique of the French Communist Party, where he said that their attitude smacked of a neocolonial attitude.
He was extremely critical of the French left’s large-scale failure to come to the aid of the African revolutions, and the Algerian revolution in particular. Now there were individuals, including Francis Jeanson, his publisher in France, who did quite brave and considerable work to surreptitiously support the Algerian movement. There were, of course, people like Jean-Paul Sartre, who took an early, brave, and honorable stance in support of the African revolutions.
But even with them, Fanon never felt completely satisfied — not even with Sartre, who was the target of assassination attempts because of the support that he gave to the African revolutions. Nevertheless, Fanon thought the relatively small number of individuals that were standing up and opposing French policy in Algeria and Africa were still not doing enough, because he and his comrades were suffering a life-and-death situation. He thought that the French leftists were not pushing the envelope and risking their lives for the cause in the way that he was.
I should mention as a coda here as to how deep this neglect was: subsequent major thinkers of the French left like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault did not have much at all to say about the Algerian revolution. Some members of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort had some interesting things to say in support of the revolution, but the group as a whole did not show much enthusiasm for it, and Castoriadis later made some very one-sided and prejudicial comments about Fanon. The French far left did not measure up in Fanon’s eyes to what was expected of them.
You mentioned some of Fanon’s personal contacts with leaders from the first wave of African decolonization — figures like Kwame Nkrumah. What were his impressions of that early stage of African postcolonial states and movements?
That’s a complicated question, depending on which states we’re talking about. He was in Accra in 1958, even before he became the roving ambassador for the provisional government of Algeria. He met many of the leaders of the African revolutions at a number of conferences. Relatively early on, he had met Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba.
He was especially close to Felix Moumié of Cameroon, who was tragically murdered by the French secret service. Lumumba was also murdered in a conspiracy between the CIA and the Belgian authorities. These losses weighed very, very heavily on him. But he was in direct contact with many of these leaders and travelled to many other countries.
He greatly respected what Kwame Nkrumah had achieved in Ghana. Nkrumah was the one who had dared to stand up to British colonialism. Ghana was the first country to gain independence on the African continent from the British. But, at the same time, Fanon was not exactly wild about Nkrumah’s effort to synthesize Gandhi and Lenin. He did not think that a peaceful road to the transformation of power — to the eviction of French or British colonialism — would succeed in much of the rest of Africa, even though it did succeed in places like Ghana and Guinea.
Fanon was also devoted to trying to develop an Africa corps of sub-Saharan Africans that would come to the support of revolutionary regimes and movements in other parts of Africa. He worked very hard to develop this Africa militia, and all the revolutionary African leaders supported it or at least gave lip service to it. But he didn’t think that they took it all that seriously, and he didn’t think that they did enough. There was at least an implied criticism there in terms of his relationships.
With Patrice Lumumba, he admired him immensely and thought that Lumumba and his movement in the Congo was the lynchpin of the African revolutions. That was what the Europeans also understood, I think, and that was why they wanted to kill him, because if the Congo could maintain its independence under a radical leadership of someone like Lumumba, it was only a matter of time before South Africa would begin to feel the fire of revolution.
As Robert Sobukwe, the leader of South Africa’s Pan-African Congress, famously put it in 1962, if South Africa passed into the revolutionary movement, it would light a flame spreading all the way north. That would be the most important ingredient in creating a truly Pan-African anti-colonial alternative. Lumumba’s murder was something that deeply distressed Fanon.
There were, of course, regimes that he was highly critical of, such as the one in Ivory Coast. The regime there was fully complicit with French imperialism, and there were other regimes like Senegal’s that maintained connections with the French Community, which he thought was a betrayal of the national movements elsewhere in Africa. A lot of that criticism played into what he was writing in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth.
The book that you just mentioned, The Wretched of the Earth, is still, I think, to this day the most famous work associated with Fanon. It came with a preface from Jean-Paul Sartre. What influence did Sartre have on Fanon — and the other way round, of course?
There’s no question that Fanon was deeply influenced by Sartre from early on, and by existentialism in general. The most important influence from Sartre in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, was a short booklet that Sartre had written just after the war, Anti-Semite and Jew. What Fanon saw was that Sartre had captured the structure of antisemitic racism — not just the political and economic structure, but the psychological mindset that is embedded within it.
He saw this as a kind of template for antiblack racism, which was why he made some very provocative comments in the book suggesting that those who were anti-Jewish were by nature antiblack and vice versa. Interestingly, although it wouldn’t have been within Fanon’s purview to know this at the time, a lot of research in recent decades has shown that the template for antiblack racism can actually be found in the racialization of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, beginning in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It took much longer, of course, for racialized antisemitism to take hold in other parts of Europe.
He was influenced by Sartre in other ways as well. But there was one fundamental sense in which he did not accept Sartre’s basic philosophical position, even from early on. Sartre, as a Heideggerian of sorts, proceeded from a view of human nature in which we are thrown into a world without meaning, in which domination, alienation, and reification define the human condition. There was a very strong notion in Sartre’s work of alienation as being an ontological designate, which defines our being in the world — a standpoint that is clearly integral to Heidegger’s way of thinking.
This is not unrelated to the fact that Sartre had a lot of trouble, especially in his early work, in establishing the relationship between the individual and society — the self and others. Sartre had a kind of dark, pessimistic view of human nature to a certain degree, which Fanon did not accept. He proceeded from a different assumption: as he put in Black Skin, White Masks, “Man is a ‘yes’ resounding from cosmic harmonies.” One cannot find a more anti-Heideggerian statement than that.
Fanon, like Hegel and Marx, proceeds from the premise that it is our nature to be intersubjective and communal. You might want to think about Marx’s concept of species-being in terms of this, although Fanon didn’t refer to it directly (he did, however, read Marx’s “Paris Manuscripts of 1844,” in which the term appears). Fanon had a sense of communal solidarity and reaching out to touch the other as being integral to lived experience — frustrated by a racist society, of course, and by a class-dominated society. That is why he denied any ontological basis to racism.
Ironically, this difference with Sartre on their view of human nature was exactly what led Fanon to be so interested in Sartre’s work. This vision of an alienated world, in which human relationships seem so inauthentic, in Fanon’s view actually captured the reality of people of color living in a racist society, even if it didn’t capture the ontology of human existence. He was very drawn to Sartre, but that doesn’t mean he was a strict Sartrean in terms of his overall philosophical perspective.
Later on, Sartre tried to move toward a more Marxian position, trying to reconcile what he himself recognized was the limitations of his earlier writings in establishing the relationship between individual and society. He wrote his famous book The Critique of Dialectical Reason. Fanon was fascinated and deeply inspired by this book. He gave lectures on it to FLN peasant recruits who were crossing over the border to fight in Algeria. It would be nice to have the text of those lectures: I don’t believe that record exists, but we do know that he gave them.
It was only toward the end of Fanon’s life in 1959 that they met face-to-face. The meeting went very well, and Fanon made the comment that he would give all the money in the world to have another two weeks to talk directly with Sartre. He was thrilled when Sartre agreed to write the preface to The Wretched of the Earth, which was written while Fanon was dying of leukemia. It was a real acknowledgment by Sartre to the importance that he saw in Fanon’s work.
However, it does not appear that he was all that happy with the preface itself. He was too sick at that point to write, but from some reports of people who were near to Fanon in the last weeks of his life, when the manuscript showed up on his bedside, he wasn’t thrilled with it.
I think there were real problems with Sartre’s preface, because he took the opening chapter of the book on violence and turned it into a virtual metaphysics of violence. He made it such a central issue of Fanon’s work that it has influenced many readings ever since, in which Fanon is seen as an apostle of violence for its own sake.
That is not what Fanon was doing. He was accounting for the necessity of violence in specific moments of revolutionary struggle and in specific circumstances. Most of all, he was trying to emphasize the inherent violence of colonialism and racism. In a certain sense, Sartre’s preface helped provide a caricature of Fanon’s overall position.
That was unfortunate, both for critics of Fanon who criticized him unfairly for this, but also for some followers of Fanon who thought that the one thing he had to teach us was how to pick up the gun. He was not simply echoing Mao’s saying that power comes out of a barrel of a gun. He had a much more profound perspective than that.
What were the principal arguments of The Wretched of the Earth, and what kind of challenges did it pose to orthodox Marxism on the one hand and anti-colonial nationalism on the other?
There were so many arguments in The Wretched of the Earth, but I would say that the most important one was an understanding of colonialism as involving what he called the Manichaean divide between the colonial settler and the colonized. This could also be understood outside of the context that he was specifically addressing of the African revolutions to think about the whole trajectory of American society to this very day, and many European societies, too.
You have this notion of a divide — as if they were two species of beings, which of course they’re not — with the misunderstanding and misapprehension and inability to even see the other, who is a person of color, as a fully human being. The colonizer always wants respect for their humanity, but it’s not reciprocal. That was one great insight of The Wretched of the Earth.
The second insight was dehumanization. The fundamental problem of racism is not simply the lack of economic opportunity and social advancement, although of course that’s central to it, but the dehumanization of the individual in terms of their interpersonal relationships. The problem of dehumanization meant that, for Fanon — and this was really his third great insight — the struggle against the realities of colonialism and its dehumanization provided the possibility for recapturing a more authentic relationship to human possibility.
He heralded what he called a new humanism. He was not somebody who was simply deconstructing and criticizing racist structures of domination, although that was central to the entire book. He was doing that in order to provide a vision of emancipation that actually kept its fingers on the pulse of human relations and helped transform those relations through a revolutionary struggle: relations between men and women, between the races, and in the workplace.
If you don’t have that kind of transformation, what kind of fundamental changes in society have you made? It ultimately has to be on the level of interpersonal subjectivity. That was the theme that underlined all of Fanon’s work, and which I think made his critique of colonialism so profound.
One of the most important parts of the book was his chapter on the trials and tribulations of national consciousness (also referred to as the pitfalls of national consciousness). He criticized the national bourgeoisie of the developing world that aligned itself with the struggle for independence, but which wanted to canalize that struggle, either by confirming its position as the new ruling class after the attainment of political power or by channeling the struggle into support for one side or the other of the superpower conflict in the Cold War.
Fanon was very worried that, with the achievement of political independence, this relatively weak and fragmented national bourgeoisie would try to monopolize power on its own behalf and would be unable to do so fully on its own accord. It would make alliances with the former colonial master — hence neocolonialism — or it would try to ally itself with the Soviet Union or with another pole of world capital.
Fanon was certainly not against revolutionaries getting aid from any source they could in order to fight the oppressor. But he was looking for a much broader social transformation than that. He said early on in The Wretched of the Earth, and continued this line of argument throughout the book, that the bourgeois-democratic stage of the national bourgeoise had to be skipped, or at least shortened. We had to move from the race struggle to the struggle to unify the nation, and from the national struggle to a social struggle, transforming the alienated conditions of life that persist even after national independence.
Fanon’s warning was that if this did not happen, then the revolutions would either retrogress back into authoritarianism, in an effort to keep these young nation-states unified, or else revert back into tribalism. He also spoke about interreligious warfare breaking out as the nation-state failed to fulfill its mission by moving beyond its confines toward what he called social consciousness, which, for Fanon, stood on a higher level than national consciousness.
Another very important point that’s often skipped over is that Fanon also took issue with the way Marxists generally read Marx — namely, by assuming that his discussion of the development of capital accumulation in Europe would be mirrored or followed by other societies that tried to enter the path of industrialization and modernity. In Europe, you had the process of what’s called the primitive accumulation of capital. The peasants were stripped of their land and forced to sell their labor power for a wage in the factories upon being deprived of their means of subsistence.
This process led to the accumulation of a great deal of capital and allowed for the flourishing of a national bourgeoisie, but it also produced a large proletariat that could combat it. Fanon saw that this kind of trajectory did not apply to Africa, because when colonialism stripped the peasants from their communal possession of the land and separated the producers from the objective conditions of production, a different result occurred when compared to Europe.
The colonial powers were not trying to industrialize Africa but rather rob it of its productive resources. They were actually de-developing Africa to a large extent. As a result, what resulted was a small and weak working class, a large, disenfranchised peasantry, and a national bourgeoisie that didn’t even have the progressive elements of revolutionizing the forces of production that defined earlier periods of European history.
Fanon said that in order to make sense of the colonial situation, we had to stretch the Marxist categories beyond where Marx took them. The irony is that in calling for this stretching, Fanon, without knowing it, was actually more in conformity with Marx than the Marxists who came after Marx himself.
Marx’s followers read the chapters on primitive accumulation in Capital as a universal theory of how all societies were bound to develop once they embarked on the path toward capitalism. But Marx actually said in the second German edition that this discussion in Capital was restricted to a descriptive analysis of what happened in Western Europe. It shed no light on what might happen elsewhere, since that would depend on the conditions they faced in their own context.
This point is overlooked not just by many Marxists, but also by most postcolonial and post-Marxist theorists, who claim that Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation cannot account for racialized capitalism. That simply isn’t true: in his late writings, Marx paid close attention to how capitalism becomes a global system by destroying noncapitalist strata in the non-Western world.
One possible criticism of The Wretched of the Earth is that Fanon generalized from too small a sample: he generalized from the African experience to the whole of the global South, and he generalized from the Algerian experience to the whole of Africa. Do you think that criticism would be justified, in whole or in part?
It would be justified in part, but one has to be careful, because sometimes people read their own political position into Fanon while making that criticism. First of all, the man was quite familiar with the situation not only in North Africa but in sub-Saharan Africa, too. After all, he was a roving ambassador for a number of years, traveling from one African country to another.
I’m not saying that he had comprehensive knowledge of any one of them. He was a late comer to knowing about Algeria, and he spent an enormous amount of time trying to learn about the nature of Arab and Berber society after he came there. But I think what most people are referring to in terms of that criticism is his advocacy of violence and his privileging of the peasantry over the urban proletariat.
Now there’s something to be said on both counts for Fanon overgeneralizing. The independence movement in Nigeria, for example, had a very large working-class component, and in Algeria itself, there was a not insignificant labor movement that was also part of the national independence struggle. That doesn’t get as much prominence in Fanon as one might expect it to have. You can make the case that he sometimes overextended that analysis too generally and fell into some problematic stances as a result.
The clearest example of that is with Angola, where there was a conflict between different wings of the liberation movement at the time. The one that stressed the peasantry over the urban working class the most was the one that Fanon threw his lot in with and supported. But they turned out to be quite a reactionary force: Holden Roberto’s FNLA [National Liberation Front of Angola].
Though Fanon could not have known it at the time, Roberto was in the employ of the CIA, which was using the FNLA to undermine the other wings of the national liberation movement, like the MPLA [People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola]. He misread the situation in Angola because he was reading it through too narrow a lens.
However, even there, it should be noted that the struggle against Portuguese colonialism had to be — and was — violent. It took the form of armed struggle, and it’s hard to see how that struggle could have occurred in any other way. Even when he was wrong on some of those particulars, he wasn’t completely off base in terms of his general argument.
One thing to keep in mind in terms of this criticism that you’re mentioning: in what country in Africa today — or perhaps even the whole world — is Fanon most read and appreciated? South Africa. How could that be if Fanon was overgeneralizing about the issues of the peasantry versus the working class, violence, etc.?
Steve Biko was deeply influenced by Fanon, as were many others in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and related political tendencies, including the Pan-Africanist movement. And the BCM (as well as the ANC [African National Congress], of course) had deep roots in the black South African working class. Why was the BCM so influenced by Fanon? The answer is that he was prophetic in his warnings in The Wretched of the Earth about following the two-stage theory of revolution.
This was the idea that first we achieve political independence, which involves an extended stage of capitalist development to build up the resources of the country, and then, only after so many years or decades, would it be ready for socialist transformation. That was unfortunately the stance of the ANC and South African Communist Party. It led South Africa to the position that it’s in today, which is not an adorable one — the embrace of a corrupt neoliberalism.
There is a recent book on Fanon by Leo Zeilig which has some interesting material on this issue. He takes the position that Fanon underestimated the working class. But what he really means by this is that he underestimated the ability of a minoritarian working class to seize power when under the leadership of a centralized, disciplined, and ideologically correct vanguard party that would lead the revolution beyond the bourgeois-democratic stage of development.
I have a real problem with that interpretation. Fanon understood, as Marx did, that you cannot create socialism based on a minoritarian working class, no matter what kind of party leads it. Socialism can only arise through the active, conscious, and purposeful activity of the majority of the populace in any given country. You can’t bring in socialism behind people’s backs and try to transport the model of Lenin in the Russia of 1917 to Africa — specifically, the notion that a minoritarian working class under the leadership of a centralized party could pull the revolution through the traumas and tribulations of revolutionary transition.
Why criticize Fanon for not endorsing that approach, when it proved to be such a disaster in Russia? As Rosa Luxemburg clearly saw at the time, Lenin’s “gamble” that the dictatorship of the proletariat could arise on the basis of a relatively small working class — most of which did not even support the Bolshevik Party — was doomed to fail, heroic and inspiring as she held the effort to be.
Indeed, nowhere in the past century has a minoritarian working class led by a party that monopolizes political power produced a transition to socialism. Here too, Fanon saw further than traditional Marxists, while approximating the position of more creative ones.
How would you say that the ideas expressed by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth measured up to the later experience of revolution in Africa, with the struggles against Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, and the struggles against white settler rule in Rhodesia and South Africa? Would you say there was a parallel between his own thinking on peasant-based revolution and the ideas of Amílcar Cabral, the Guinean leader?
Cabral was deeply influenced by Fanon. Cabral is one of the most extraordinary figures and thinkers to have been produced by the postwar anti-colonial revolutions. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon raised the question of what model of development had to be adopted after independence in order to avoid the pitfalls of a bourgeois phase of development, which would turn very quickly, he thought, into authoritarian statism.
Fanon argued for something that didn’t happen in the African revolutions or any of the anti-colonial revolutions: decentralization, instead of centralization — that is, you try to make sure that the revolution remains grounded in the masses who made it. Of course, that applies to the peasantry, especially since they were the main fighting force in these independence struggles.
How could you ground the revolution in the masses, and keep the revolutionary leadership grounded in the mass base? One way would be to have decentralized communal development projects that involved the masses, instead of centralizing power and trying to have megaprojects with foreign capital funding them, going over the heads of the masses. Fanon took this even to the extent that he didn’t want the newly independent African countries to have a capital city.
He said: why do all the bureaucrats have to live in one area closed off from the rest of the populace? If you force the politicians and bureaucrats to move around to different parts of the country — spending four months here, three months there, including the rural areas — they would have to be more attentive to the needs of the people and it would guard against bureaucratization. This was the kind of thing that Cabral was very influenced by, as well as by the democratic tenor of Fanon’s entire project.
In some of the liberated areas in Guinea-Bissau, the guerrillas held democratic elections within the liberated zones. There was open discussion and debate within an anti-colonial revolutionary movement to try and avoid the tendencies toward statism and authoritarianism, which were almost inevitably going to come to the fore after state power was won. It’s one thing to be fighting for freedom when you’re not in power. The question is, how liberatory are you now that you’ve got power and you can use it in all kinds of different ways, including nefarious ones?
On this level, Cabral was deeply influenced by Fanon and in some ways went beyond Fanon in some of his practical efforts to implement some of these ideas. It’s not an accident that a film which was made a number of years ago on The Wretched of the Earth was focused on Mozambique and Rhodesia. There, you really saw the Manichaean world that Fanon talked about.
Where Fanon really spoke to the freedom struggles in those lands was in his critique of the two-stage theory, while at the same time avoiding a kind of ultraleft, traditional European Marxist approach to that problem, suggesting that it could be resolved by relying on a small vanguard party with support from only a minority of the population. In The Wretched of the Earth, he had a striking passage where he attacked the single-party state and said that it was the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie unmasked. You have to take seriously his critique of a single-party state and ask what the legacy of those states has been in anti-colonial revolutions.
What would you say the legacy of Fanon is for the struggle against racism today, whether in Africa or in countries like the United States?
In several places in his work, Fanon suggested a link between what he was saying about Africa and the situation in the United States, even though he didn’t write much about the US. He didn’t pretend that he was developing a universal theory that would be applicable to the situation in every country.
He was very clear that he was writing out of his lived experience as a black man and a colonial subject, first in the Lesser Antilles, then in France, then in North Africa. Nevertheless, he pointed out that in countries like France, where he lived, there was a kind of buffer zone between the masses and the exploiters: the legal authorities, educational system, and everything else that would somewhat buffer the harshness of oppression.
He noted that in colonial situations, it was much more Manichaean and clear-cut. Those buffers between the police, the state, and the masses were just not there, and that was why people suffered such enormous degradation and dehumanization. But Fanon also suggested that in places elsewhere in the world that had a long legacy of racism, like the United States, those buffers were also weakening. He had some important insights on this.
I think the most important thing is that Fanon developed a perspective that continues to be refreshing, and that we need to develop further, because it breaks out of a standard narrative that we get on the Left, especially in the United States. There is a class-reductionist position that says the fight against racism is important, but it’s of secondary significance — or some people would even say it’s a diversion from the class struggle.
The basic notion that many people have on the Left is that the problem of race and racism will essentially be resolved with an anti-capitalist revolution, understood in terms of the abolition of private property and free markets and the creation of socialized conditions of production. I don’t think there’s much evidence that that will be enough to end racism and purge it from the minds and spirit of humanity.
It would take a much more thoroughgoing revolution to achieve that — one that would have to rethink the conception of an anti-capitalist alternative that has been propagated by many Marxists, which has fallen short of the vision that Marx himself had. Marx originally called his philosophy a humanism and was focused on the transformation of human relations — beginning at the point of production, but that doesn’t mean it ends there. The transformation of human relations is the fundamental issue, and I think Fanon was picking that up.
The other side that you get is the opposite of the class-reductionist or class-first position: the proponents of a race-first position, who might argue that the struggle against racism can be disassociated from the struggle against capitalism. Sometimes this takes the form of striving for recognition based on one’s racial attributes that are denigrated by society, in order to become accepted within the terrain of the given social structure. Fanon also offers an alternative to that standpoint, which sometimes might be called a narrow version of identity politics, just as much as he offers an alternative to the kind of class reductionism that at times pervades much of the Left.
Fanon wanted the oppressed subject to take pride in who they were, to recapture their culture and heritage, and demand a redress of all that had been taken away from them by centuries of settler colonialism. He wanted a world of mutual recognitions. He defined his humanism as a world in which we recognized each other for our dignity and worth as human subjects and human beings. It’s a lofty goal to strive for, but that’s what he thought should be the aim of any real freedom struggle.
Achieving that kind of mutual recognition is not simply a question of self-expression. Nor is it recognition in terms of providing equal rights. It’s deeper than a juridical recognition — it has to involve recognition of your actual humanity, your dignity as a person, and a refusal to allow anyone to be looked at or treated as a thing or as an object.
That can’t be achieved, Fanon suggested, without a thoroughgoing social transformation. You’re not going to get rid of this problem, ultimately, without an anti-capitalist perspective. You also need to move beyond the traditional parameters in which anti-capitalist perspectives are framed, which is too often in terms of property forms rather than transforming the alienated human relations that make such forms possible.
I’m not suggesting that Fanon worked out the answer to this conundrum — this contradiction between the two dominant tendencies that we have to deal with today — and I’m simplifying the tendencies themselves for the sake of time here. But I am suggesting that Fanon gave us important conceptual tools to think outside the box when it comes to thinking about race and racism, and about what is a viable alternative to capitalism, which we urgently need — because capitalism is destroying our planet, and time is running out to reverse it.