Review of The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

by Rachel Barrow, 2016

Echoing his own words, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth ([1961] 2001) is often referred to as a text belonging irreducibly to its time. This time was unmistakably that of decolonisation and anti-colonial resistance; the onset of a new day, as Fanon saw it, pregnant with optimism and anticipation at the prospect of Third World liberation. With fervour and often excess, Fanon recounts the violence—both physical and psychological—of European colonialism which, he orders, ought only to be met with violence in equal measure from the hands of the ‘wretched’. Fanon’s final work is thus considered the Black Revolution’s manifesto, irremovable from its context and steeped in a Marxian idealism and psychoanalytic affectivism which, with its tendency to obfuscate the nuances of African politics, ought to be received with scepticism. Yet in all its contradiction and caricature, such accounts as these do a disservice to the contemporary and continuing significance of The Wretched, overlooking its merit rather as a guide for a supra-racial critical pedagogy. While the text has flaws, Fanon is well aware of them, and as such this review intends to draw out the insights gleaned from a rereading of the text at our present juncture. Moreover, I argue that The Wretched is better understood as a book with a universal vision for humanity whose application extends well beyond a break from colonialism.

In the opening chapter of The Wretched, Fanon presents an exegesis of the colonial encounter as a Manichean one, characterised by violence, and a call for counter-violence as a political tool. Not only was the native met by the coloniser with violence, but their relationship was maintained and reproduced through it. The necessity and political salience of counter-violence is hence twofold in Fanon’s understanding; both social and emancipatory. Firstly, “decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon” since violence is the only language the settler speaks, and this violence is thus borne of tensions created by the coloniser: “[T]he settler has shown him the way he should take if he is to become free […] and by an ironic turning of the tables, it is the native who now affirms that the colonialist understands nothing but force” (66). The counter-violence of the native is thus instrumental in complicating the binaries of coloniser/colonised, and constitutes a complete refiguring of the social landscape from below such that “the last shall be first” (35) and agency be restored. Secondly, violence is a liberating force in itself since it results in the self-realisation of the native and unifies the people against the separatism of colonialism: “at the level of the individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native […] and restores his self respect” (74).

This insistence on violence is clearly problematic considered alongside the possibility that its outcome might ultimately figure a sort of ‘reverse Manicheanism’ whereby the native simply becomes oppressor, and in so doing is de-humanised like the settler before him. This is a major oversight of the text and of Fanon’s dualistic categorising of colonial-violence and counter-violence. The prescription does little to account for ambiguity, and the way in which the creative violence of the masses may be appropriated by the postcolonial state following the retreat of colonial rule—a possibility turned reality in much of the continent, from Zimbabwe to Nigeria, and indeed Algeria.

I am also struck, given the great pains Fanon takes in defending African agency, by the way in which he effectively robs the colonised of their long history of resistance to colonialism, supplanting it, ironically, with a “history of pillage” which the native must dispense with in order to become free (40). Their history here becomes a static one, and the ambivalence with which colonialism was met and resisted from below (cf. Scott, 1985; Comaroff, 1985) is consigned to the mind of the native blind to his oppression. What we are in danger of ending up with on this reading is a belligerent anti-colonialism which rejects, without question, moderation of any kind and inadvertently permits a new binary of anti-colonialist/collaborator. Indeed, as Cooper urges, “searching for those historical actors who found the true path is a less fruitful task than studying different paths into engagement with colonisation as well as the tensions between different sorts of liberations, […] between cultural assertion and cultural interaction” (Cooper, 1994: 1544). In its theorising then, The Wretched appears rather embroiled in the ‘Manichaean’ world it fought so passionately to dismantle.

Fanon, however, was not blind to the complexities he was attempting to confront, nor to the contradictions of his thought and thus these critiques must be contextualised within the text’s broader intentions as I see them. Fanon, a psychiatrist, knew well the effects of violence on the individual as well as the target. His chapter Colonial War and Mental Disorders attests to this. The Wretched’s intermediate chapters bring out the contradictions of such violent political praxis in absence of intellectual and truly democratic leadership, for “racialism and hatred and resentment […] cannot sustain a war of liberation” (111). Here, he offers his treatise on the revolutionary lumpen-proletariat and the chauvinistic and ill-prepared nationalist movements he sees emerging across the continent, shortly followed by an affirmation of national culture as a means to build political and social consciousness. The fundamental flaw of the national bourgeoisie is its failure to engage the peasantry and break free from its containment in Western understandings of party and politics, and above all, culture, that consider only the working classes and skilled workers—a fraction of the population (86). For this reason these elites can never be revolutionary in the way Fanon sees necessary, and this foresight is one of the greatest accomplishments of the book considered alongside the pitfalls of the postcolonial state.

It is the lumpen-proletariat, “that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe” who constitute “one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonised people” (103). It is here that we arrive at perhaps Fanon’s most salient negation, an attestation to the weakness of such an underclass alone, in need of the “force of the intellect” to bring “the people to maturity” and finally “show their power and authority by criticising mistakes […] and [ensuring] fresh conditions for progress” (117). These are intellectuals who have been shunned from the national parties and received their political education in prisons, shantytowns and marginal spaces outside the colonial city, and who thus represent the truth of the colonial situation; combined with the people they constitute an “embryonic political body of insurrection” (Gibson, 2007: 38). They offer, above all, political enlightenment to the masses, conveying a clear example of how agency and participation might be maintained through true democratic leadership.

There is, of course, much more to be done in the way of consolidating these ideas with a greater understanding of Africa’s multitude of social, political and economic arrangements. But what becomes clear here is that theorising appears to have been neither Fanon’s strength nor his intention. It is precisely the opposite. His series of assertions and negations form above all a critical pedagogy: a manual for the path yet to be travelled to African liberation which moves beyond technocratic ‘development’ solutions and self-serving theorising. What The Wretched narrates so well, in opposition, is a cycle. It brings to light not only the faults and failures of agency (Gibson, 2007: 39), but the realities of the postcolonial period in a new and refreshing way, revealing the timelessness of the text. It reminds us that “to advance a step further” (55) the struggle against African ‘underdevelopment’ must be rooted in the will of the people and as Fanon articulates, “this lucidity must remain deeply dialectical”, for “the awakening of the people will not be achieved overnight” (194).

What then are we to make of The Wretched’s series of passionately defended prescriptions, often quickly followed by their problematisation or negation? We are promoted to take up arms, but violence alone cannot bring true liberation without a break from European culture; urged to form a national culture facilitated by democratic leadership, yet informed that pitfalls are therein unavoidable; called to stand up and root our intellectual labour in the struggles of the masses, but not be sidelined by power or mimicry. I am in agreement with Wallerstein, that the answer is “a brilliant delineation of our collective dilemmas” (2009: 124). The contradictions of Fanon’s thought are less failed attempts to theorise the trajectory of African politics than a reminder that the struggle for liberation is a long and dialectical one. The failures of the postcolony thus inject The Wretched with a renewed significance at our present juncture as Western intervention lives on as the norm. Fanon’s final words, then, are ones best understood as prompting us to revive that which is lost in the specialist, depoliticised language of development ‘experts’—our common humanity—and it is in this that he so forcefully succeeds.

REFERENCES

Comaroff, J. (1985) Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cooper, F. (1994) Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History. The American Historical Review, 99: 5, 1516-1545.

Fanon, F. (2001) The Wretched of the Earth, originally published in French, 1961. Translated by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin.

Gibson, N. C. (2007) Is Fanon Relevant? Toward an Alternative Foreword to “The Damned of the Earth”. Human Architecture: Journal or the Sociology of Self Knowledge, 5. 33-44.

Scott, J. (1985) Weapons of the Weak. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wallerstein, I. (2009) Reading Fanon in the 21st Century. New Left Review, 57. 117-125.