Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925. Fanon became a psychiatrist and worked in Algeria during the rebellion against the French colonial government. He then died of Leukemia in a Washington D.C. hospital in 1961.
His seminal work was The Wretched of the Earth, released in the year of his death and with a preface by another 20th century post-modern philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre summed up the book’s main philosophy as a dichotomy of “us” and “them”, with “us” being the West, and “them” being the developing world. The West is made up of colonisers and settlers, so obviously automatically evil, while the developing world, the wretched, are by definition exploited and victims of the imperialist West and therefore morally virtuous.
Now, before I launch into the critique, I’ll point out some of the merits of Fanon’s work. One merit is that he wrote about those living under imperialist powers from their perspective, as one who’d lived under those powers and wasn’t one of the establishment white writers who wrote about the “natives”. He drew attention to what this experience was actually like, and portrayed how it affected these people. This was arguably a badly needed corrective to the often racist views, stereotypes and descriptions of how the “natives” lived that many in the Western imperial powers absorbed every day, particularly but not exclusively in France.
Despite this, there are also many reasons that Fanon’s work deserves stringent criticism.
One is the overly broad-brush approach of putting the world into two oppositional camps: oppressors (Westerners) and oppressed (non-Westerners). This rather stunning generalisation ignores the fact that not all Western countries have been colonial powers, and not all non-Western countries have been the victims of imperialism. Indeed, many non-Western nations have engaged in colonialism, imperialism, slavery and oppression as enthusiastically as the Western oppressors.
Saying otherwise is not only intellectually dishonest and factually wrong, it also paints non-Western people as helpless victims who have no control over their own destiny and almost completely lacking free will and a sense of autonomy. Smells slightly of the bigotry of low expectations does it not?
We must remember, however, that Fanon’s views of imperialism were hugely influenced by his experiences in Algeria during the rebellion and war with the French. This was a brutal war that had far reaching and damaging consequences, especially for the local population. However, to take those experiences as representative of the experiences of all those everywhere else who lived under imperialist systems doesn’t really work. People’s experiences of colonialism varied from country to country, area to area.
Fanon also makes blanket statements about the utopian potential of revolution, betraying his roots in Hegelian dialectic and left leaning ideas. He states that the wars of liberation carried out by non-Western “natives” against their Western overlords will inevitably lead to a more harmonious form of government where they will not allow themselves to be oppressed by their own people because they will have gained the self-knowledge and foresight to avoid this: “When the people have taken violent part in the national liberation they will allow no one to set themselves up as ‘liberators.’ They [will] take good care not to place their future, their destinies or the fate of their country in the hands of a living god.”
Fanon assures us further that “[t]he African people and indeed all under-developed peoples, contrary to common belief, very quickly build up a social and political consciousness.” Furthermore, after the glorious revolution by non-Western colonial subjects of colonial powers “the people [will] join in the new rhythm of the nation, in their mud huts and in their dreams. Under their breath and from their hearts’ core they [will] sing endless songs of praise to the glorious fighters.” Vive la révolution!
These newly freed people will, furthermore, “proceed in an atmosphere of solemnity to cleanse and purify the face of the nation. . . . In a veritable collective ecstasy, families which have always been traditional enemies [will] decide to rub out old scores and to forgive and forget. There [will be] numerous reconciliations. Long-buried but unforgettable hatreds [will be] brought to life once more, so that they may more surely be rooted out.” How lovely, and what of those who do not wish to partake in this wonderful utopia? How will they be dealt with? Surely, the purification of the nation can’t include a purge of those who pose an obstacle to the nation’s onward march towards its manifest destiny?
Needless to say, the tragic and often violent history of much of post-colonial Africa has completely destroyed Fanon’s utopian dreams. Marxism and the unleashing of bitter resentment never end well.
Showing his radical bent, Fanon writes sympathetically about the violence of “natives”, where he argues that it “constitutes their only work, invests their characters with positive and creative qualities. The practice of violence binds them together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upwards in reaction to the settler’s violence in the beginning. . . . At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” Yay, racialised collectivism expressed through violence!
Now, if all this has the faint ring of revolutionary Marxism (with a hint of Hegelianism) then you’d be correct. Fanon, like many 20th century intellectuals, had high regard for and was an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro, who “took over power in Cuba, and gave it to the people.” America, on the other hand, “has decided to strangle the Cuban people mercilessly. But this will be difficult. The people will suffer, but they will conquer.” In light of Castro’s tyranny, one wonders whether Fanon might have had second thoughts, but I seriously doubt it. He would probably have criticised Castro for failing to go far enough, or he would have retreated into the victimhood and blame laying that so many on the hard-Left wallow in when their pathetic and destructive ideals implode.
As a result of his support for revolutionary Marxism, Fanon was of course against the one thing that could have brought peace, prosperity and stability to the liberated post-colonial countries. He insists that “it is absolutely necessary to oppose vigorously and definitively the birth of a national bourgeoisie and a privileged caste.” Further, he calls for the eradication of whatever bourgeoisie does exist “because, literally, it is good for nothing”—it “express[es] its mediocrity in its profits, its achievements and in its thought” and “tries to hide this mediocrity . . . by chromium plating on big American cars, by holidays on the Riviera and week-ends in neon-lit night-clubs.”
You read that right – Fanon calls for the destruction of the middle class because “the bourgeois phase in the history of under-developed countries is a completely useless phase,” and “[r]ich people . . . are nothing more than flesh-eating animals, jackals and vultures which wallow in the people’s blood.” The purge of the Kulaks brought to Africa.
Fanon’s theories on how post-colonial societies should function echo Paulo Freire’s: “We ought to uplift the people; we must develop their brains, fill them with ideas, change them and make them into human beings. . . . [P]olitical education means opening their minds, awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence; as [leftist Martinican writer Aimé] Césaire said, it is ‘to invent souls.’”
In other words, non-Westerners aren’t human beings with souls and won’t become so until the “good” Westerners fill their heads with the right political philosophy for them to engage in the Hegelian struggle against the evil Western colonisers. Since the state replaces God in the Marxist worldview, then it is only the state who can give the masses transcendent purpose, by dictating what that purpose is and sweetening the rotten deal with promises dripping with the poisoned honey of a utopian nightmare.
The paternalistic ideological colonialism is breathtaking, and even more so today. No viewing these people as sacrosanct individuals endowed with certain inalienable rights; they’re tools to fight the Western capitalist/imperialist system that men like Fanon hated. If their ideological victims spent the rest of their lives in perpetual poverty then all to the better, as at least they’d remain pure of mind and soul, part of a wicked Rousseauian utopianism for the gratification of Fanon and those like him.
Fanon doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s talking about indoctrination into collectivist left-wing ideology:“the leaders of the ring realise that the various groups must be enlightened; that they must be educated and indoctrinated; and that an army and a central authority must be created.”
And he goes on: “The masses should know that the government and the party are at their service. . . . Nobody, neither leader nor rank-and-file, can hold back the truth. The search for truth in local attitudes is a collective affair.”
And on: “The nation does not exist except in a programme which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders and taken up with full understanding and enthusiasm by the masses.”
In sum, Frantz Fanon was part of a wave of so-called philosophers who specialised in Hegelian dialectic, fusing it with anti-colonialism and revolutionary Marxism. To Fanon, the people he supposedly spoke for and was trying to help weren’t people with souls until he’d awoken their consciousness with the right political philosophy to equip them in their struggle against the colonial power.
His view of these people is paternalistic and bigoted, as he sees them as chits to be used in his ideological campaign against France. Fanon shows, again, the dangers of collectivism and how it always results in impoverishment and misery.
Of course, he wouldn’t have cared about this as long as the people he was supposedly helping remained ideologically pure.