The Making of Frantz Fanon

The psychiatrist Frantz Fanon witnessed World War II and the Algerian War of Independence firsthand. Adam Shatz’s new book, The Rebel’s Clinic, shows how these experiences turned Fanon into a revolutionary.

Frantz Fanon during a writers’ conference in Tunis, 1959. (Wikimedia Commons)

Frantz Fanon was born in colonial Fort-de-France, Martinique, on July 20, 1925, the child of petit-bourgeois parents who were direct descendants of slaves. He claimed that his first words were je suis français, an anecdote that is likely apocryphal but goes a long way toward explaining the conflicted sense of identity that informed his outlook.

When Freedom Is at Stake

Fanon’s first foray into understanding his identity came via the writings of the poet, communist politician, and founder of Négritude, Aimé Césaire. Négritude was a framework that sought to critique Eurocentrism by insisting that black consciousness brought with it a set of intellectual and cultural standards that differed from those of the white world. Adam Shatz, a longtime contributor to the London Review of Books, argues in The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon that although Fanon would ultimately distance himself from Négritude’s worldview, he remained faithful to “the emancipation of Black humanity not only from political and economic domination but also from the tyranny of assimilation to white values.”

Armed with this loose political outlook, in 1943 Fanon decided to join the Free French forces under the command of Charles de Gaulle — the conservative political genius who had found a way of unifying sections of his country’s collaborationist bourgeoisie behind the project of national liberation. Césaire, Fanon’s professor during the war years, tried to persuade him that he had no business fighting in a white man’s war. To this Fanon is said to have replied that “when freedom is at stake, it concerns everyone, whatever their color.”

Fanon was soon to learn the ways of the French empire. In basic training in Meknes, Morocco, he encountered an army that was divided and compartmentalized along racial lines. The irony that this was a force that was supposed to be fighting against fascism was lost on the French military leadership. By 1944, Fanon had arrived in Algeria, in preparation for Operation Dragoon, an allied-led amphibious invasion of Vichy-controlled Southern France in 1944.

That the Allies’ cause was, like that of their enemy, one of colonial expansion and defense, albeit without the genocidal aims, was a fact that dawned slowly on Fanon. As Shatz writes:

Fanon could not have known that nine years later he would return to this country as a medical doctor, much less that he would join the Algerian rebels against France. But the experience left him with a disturbing image of French Algeria. While waiting to disembark in Oran, the coastal city in Western Algeria where Albert Camus would set his 1947 novel, The Plague, Fanon saw a group of starving Arab children fighting in ‘rage and hatred,’ over bits of food that his fellow soldiers had tossed in their direction, as if they were feeding chickens. . . . This was France in its most treasured colony.

Fanon was learning gradually about the viciousness of the French empire. If he was expecting a happy ending to his struggle against Nazi barbarism, he would be badly disappointed. “During the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle capitulated to American demands to exclude Black colonial soldiers from the triumphal march into the capital,” essentially making the liberation a white only affair.

Unmarked Bodies

After the war, Fanon studied psychiatry in Lyon, joining a vibrant group of leftist psychiatrists reevaluating the field. One of the most influential of these figures was the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who had just published his magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Perception. In it he defended the view that human perception and experience are fundamentally embodied, against an empiricist theory of knowledge. Merleau-Ponty’s thesis resonated with Fanon, but he thought it didn’t go far enough. There were differences in the embodied experiences not just of men and women or able-bodied and disabled people, as Merleau-Ponty argued, but also between white and black man. The latter, Fanon insisted, lacked “psychical anonymity. Whites could pass without notice on the streets . . . because their bodies were unmarked.”

In the Marxist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Fanon found an antidote to the color-blind thinking of Merleau-Ponty. Sartre’s 1946 publication of Anti-Semite and Jew left a lasting impression on Fanon. In that book, the author of Being and Nothingness analyzed the role that antisemitic hate played in shaping the psychology and experience of Jewishness. One of the most important concepts developed in the work is that the “double-consciousness” created by antisemitism, an idea inspired by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel but also arrived at independently by the African-American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Fanon was keen to apply this understanding to his emerging analysis of colonialism’s impact on the psyche of black people. Initially, he found his confidence by taking aim at psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Manonni treated the exploitation of colonized blacks as a result of their “dependency complex,” a notion that Fanon found outrageous. In his classic account of the psychology of racial oppression, Black Skin, White Masks, he would write of colonial administrators that “they persist in their program of turning the négre into a White man. In the end they give up and tell him: you definitely have a dependency complex toward the white man.”

Shatz’s book comes alive in these discussions, where he outlines the positions of Fanon’s enemies before setting the philosopher up against them with a polemical force that succeeds in making the reader, too, feel party to the struggle against imperialism. Compellingly, Shatz makes the case that his subject saw the struggle against colonialism as attacking a malady right at the heart of European civilization:

Anticipating Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism by one year, [Fanon] argued that colonial violence laid the necessary groundwork for the racism, persecution, and mass murder that Nazism had inflicted on the European continent. The “Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century” he wrote, “has a Hitler inside him” and “if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent.”

The goal of Black Skin, White Masks was to provide a guide to overcoming the problem of black alienation, a problem that would only be solved through the active participation of black people in changing their society and revolutionizing the material basis from which colonialism profits. In practice, however, Fanon had yet to implement his ideas of progressive psychiatry.

This changed with the introduction of fellow psychiatrist, former soldier, Catalan nationalist, and Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) militant François Tosquelles. One of the more exciting characters in Rebel’s Clinic: Tosquelles was practicing a radical “bring Marx to the asylum” politics and creating a “healing collective” at his Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole psychiatric ward. The idea was revolutionary. All members of staff, nurses, janitors, doctors, and patients worked together to create an environment of openness, resolving issues and assessing problems as a collective.

This allowed patients to take ownership of their surroundings, in what Tosquelles called “institutional therapy” and what Fanon would further name “social therapy.” Fanon’s time at Saint-Alban left a lasting impact. There he put his concept of “authentic disalienation” into action, empowering patients as active participants in their own liberation, and transforming himself into a practitioner of revolutionary deeds, not just words.

A Growing Sense of Selfhood

Fanon brought his new informed revolutionary practice to Blida, Algeria, at the Blida-Joinville hospital. It was here where he began to have direct contact with the victims of French colonialism, Algeria’s Muslims. With an eye to the current settler-colonial state in Israel, Shatz brilliantly chronicles the French conquest of Algiers and the culture that undergirded it:

If modern Israel had Theodor Herzl, French Algeria had the idealogue Louis Bertrand, who, after seeing the Roman ruins in Tipaza, developed a hypothesis that Algeria was a lost Latin province, now rightfully restored to France. . . . Bertrand wrote in 1939 in a preface to a new edition of his 1920 novel, Le Sang des races (The blood of races) . . . “The Africa of the triumphal arches and the basilicas rises before me: the Africa of Apuleis and St. Augustine. This is the real Africa.” Algeria’s Muslims were merely “contemporary shadows of those edifices”; French settlers were, by definition, the true natives.

This was the environment in which Fanon operated. Despite this, his psychiatric ward remained a space in which “debate was permanent” and where the collective reigned supreme. Motivated by a Marxist-inflected humanism, Fanon immersed himself in Arab culture. To better understand his staff and patients he created erected a traditional Moorish café and an “Oriental salon” in his hospital. Shatz writes that “Fanon was arming his patients with a powerful new weapon, a growing sense of selfhood and dignity, and they became increasingly assertive about their rights,” a development that the militant encouraged and celebrated.

The climax of Rebel’s Clinic is reached with the Algerian war of independence, and in particular the attack of Philippeville, in which National Liberation Front (FLN) leaders organized a brutal new uprising targeting the settler community of Europeans and killing 123 people. Not unlike Hamas’s attack on October 7 and the genocidal response by Israel, the French retaliated with a wave of savagery that claimed the lives of over ten thousand Algerians. From here on out the struggle for a free Algeria was a vicious affair, and although the FLN and the people of Algeria suffered tremendous defeats post-Philippeville, “it was also a psychological victory for the insurrection . . . it became a war between two violently opposed communities: European settlers and colonized Muslims.”

The war also split the progressive left in France, with the Stalinist French Communist Party, led by Maurice Thorez, adopting a “nation in formation” line and ultimately glossing over the settler-colonial nature of French Algeria. Simone de Beauvoir captured these ruptures accurately when she wrote that those who cried over “past sorrows — Anne Frank or the Warsaw Ghetto” but did not condemn France in Algeria stood “on the side of the executioners of those who suffer today.”

The split also occurred within the literary world. Albert Camus famously declared after being confronted by an activist that if he had to choose between a free Algeria or his mother (who was a settler), he would choose his mother. For Fanon, the choice was very simple: he devoted the remainder of his life to the cause of Algerian self-determination, using his psychiatric ward to treat injured resistance fighters, promoting the politics of the FLN by writing for the proindependence magazine El Moudjahid, and becoming an ambassador for the creation of a United Africa during his time in newly independent Guinea.

Fanon also developed a close relationship with Kabyle Abane Ramdane, the political leader of the FLN in Algeria. Through his discussion of the two men, Shatz explains the dynamics at play in violent national liberation struggles. The tension underlying the liberation movement was between the political branch and the military branch, and in the case of the FLN the exterior bureaucratic military leadership based out of Morocco and Tunisia and the interior political leadership led by Abane. The latter was in closer contact to the masses in the towns, and this split would have deadly consequences for the movement.

The Battle of Algiers, directed by socialist Gillo Pontecorvo, vividly portrays the new French insurgency that decimated the interior leadership. It succeeded in turning the struggle for a free Algeria into a battle on two fronts, a set of guerrilla skirmishes in the countryside and a broader ideological contest.

The tool at the FLN’s disposal was the United Nations General Assembly, which debated the Algerian question in 1957, almost a decade prior to the release of Pontecorvo’s film. A young US senator by the name of John F. Kennedy gave a speech where he came out in support of Algerian independence, arguing for a future of common markets and free new African states. With its eye on the broader dynamics of the Cold War, rather than maintaining Europe’s old empires, the United States sought to win over the soon-to-be-formed Non-Aligned Movement. Eventually, the settler-colonial project of Algiers began to lose international support and with it the political will of some if its leaders in the mainland.

Perhaps the book’s hero, and one of the people Shatz dedicates it to, is Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, the woman who became Fanon’s “tape recorder,” as he liked to call her, betraying a blind spot for thinking about gender that would plague him throughout his life. Fanon recited L’an V de la révolution algérienne, translated in English as A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth, to Manuellan while he slowly succumbed to leukemia. In L’an V, Fanon addresses the revolutionary nature of wearing a veil in occupied Algiers. This is one of the few instances where his focus turns to issues relating to women.

Shatz writes that in Fanon’s view, the haiks were “a protection from the occupier’s aggressive attempts to possess women, to make visible to the male European gaze.” Vividly, Fanon writes of the involvement of female resistance fighters, often concealing weapons under clothes designed for modesty, in the struggle for independence. But Islam, which provided much of the context and motive for these actions, is often left out of Fanon’s analysis. A discussion of the religion’s effect on the movement is conspicuously absent from The Wretched of the Earth. Shatz explains this shortcoming wonderfully:

[What] Fanon refused to see was that hostility to Algerian women’s empowerment was not merely a “dead element” of the past into which colonialism had breathed new life: religious currents in the nationalist movement, especially those close to the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama, were keen to reinforce patriarchy and the traditional family, invariably in the name of Islam. Fanon’s belief in the revolution — and, possibly, his own atheism — blinded him to the religious component of Algeria’s struggle.

Crucial, too, to Fanon’s analysis was a critique of the nascent national bourgeoisie who would come to dominate the former colonies. The struggle for independence was not simply between an occupying power and a would-be state, but between a popular vision of self-rule and the return of minority rule at the hands of capitalist elites. By recognizing this, Fanon anticipated the rise of the neoliberal politics that would lock the Global South in poverty in the postwar era. Shatz’s Rebel’s Clinic brings to life the range of Fanon’s intellect, and the light that he shines on the complexities of his era and our own.