The Wretched of the Earth
The Wretched of the Earth
by Frantz Fanon
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of essays, parts of which are set in Algeria and other developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; published in French (as Les damnés de la terre) in 1961, in English in 1963.
Drawing on his experiences as a revolutionary in the Algerian war of national liberation (1954-62), psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argues that only violent revolution can free the Third World from colonial rulers. His argument leads into crucial notions about the issues of nation-building and national culture.
Born in 1925, Frantz Fanon grew up in a middle-class black family in the French West Indian colony of Martinique. He was one of the 4 percent of black Martinique children whose families could afford to send them to lycée for a European-style secondary education. During World War II, when Martinique was occupied by the Nazis, Fanon fought for the Free French in Europe (the exile forces led by General Charles de Gaulle after France fell to the Nazis in 1940). He later studied psychiatry in Lyon, France. Fanon first went to Algeria as a member of the French colonial administration and, in 1953, became one of the directors of a French psychiatric hospital there. Finding his sympathies turning toward the Algerian Nationalist movement, Fanon joined the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which sought to end French colonial rule. He was expelled from Algeria in 1957 by the French government for his participation in an Algerian nationalist strike, and served briefly as the FLN’s ambassador to Ghana. Fanon survived a couple of assassination attempts, but fell ill with leukemia in 1961. During his last year he battled the fatal disease while writing, in a fury of anger and passion, The Wretched of the Earth. He read the page proofs in September and died in December 1961, at age 36 in a hospital bed in the United States. His body was returned to Algeria and buried in a cemetery of the Algerian revolutionary army.
Decolonization: a survey
Fanon drew on his experience as a psychiatrist and revolutionary in Algeria, but his ideas in The Wretched of the Earth apply to all colonized nations, especially those in Africa. As demonstrated by the examples Fanon cites in the book, he was well acquainted with the history of colonization and Third World independence movements.
From the sixteenth century to the mid-1970s, European nations held various areas of Asia, Africa, and the Americas as colonial possessions. World War II (1939-1945), however, shifted the balance of power, weakening Europe’s two major colonizers, Britain and France, draining them of the financial resources they needed to hold other lands. At the same time, nationalist movements emerged in colonized countries, fueled by the colonized middle classes, who benefited from their education in Europe and their experience in fighting the two World Wars. These privileged classes were able to turn their desire for freedom and independence into national movements that drew strength from changing demographics (mass migrations from the country to the city) and the growth of the urban working classes.
Meanwhile, the United States gained economic and political power and began waging a competition with the Soviet Union for world leadership in the so-called “Cold War,” which was played out in violent proxy battles across the Third World. Interested in spreading communism and influencing newly independent nations, the Soviets supported national liberation fronts. The United States, once a colony itself, did not take an openly opposite position. Wary of the threat to capitalism of communist national liberation movements, it neither endorsed nor denounced overt colonialism, but attempted to control new nations by economic, cultural, and tacit means. Fledgling governments and liberation movements received aid from one of the two superpowers in return for a commitment to communism or democracy.
HISTORICAL FRENCH ATTITUDE TO ALGERIANS
“Wherever good water and land are found [in Algeria],” Marshal Bugeaud recommended to the French parliament in 1840, “[European] settlers must be installed without questioning whose land it may be.”
(Bugeaud in Davidson, p. 119)
Asian colonies were the first to break free. India declared independence from Britain in 1947, and Indochina from France in 1954. The last bastion of European colonialism was Africa, a continent that remained largely under the rule of Portugal, Britain, and France. In 1957 Ghana became the first African nation to gain its independence. Most African nations followed suit, achieving freedom during the 1960s, except for the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, which attained self-rule in the mid-1970s. Revolts against colonial control proved to be grim, bloody affairs. In 1947 more than 70,000 people were killed by the French Army during a peasant revolt in Madagascar. In 1957 the British Army put down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya after five years of bloodshed there.
The cost in lives and money of these colonial struggles sapped the will of European powers to hold onto their colonies. At the same time, there was increasing international pressure to end colonial rule, including a condemnation of colonialism by the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, which confirmed the right of people to decide their own sovereignty. The 1960s saw the wholesale dismantling of British and French colonies in Africa; in 1960 alone France granted independence to 16 of its African colonies.
Independence, however, did not free most nations from the colonial legacy. The national borders drawn by European nations in the nineteenth century did not reflect African realities, which meant that a cultural group of people was often split between nations, or one country included more than one people. Attempts to place diverse peoples under the same government created enormous tension and rivalry.
Often, the new nations’ economies were left in shambles by the sudden withdrawal of European capital. While they became politically independent, new nations found themselves dependent upon the former colonial powers’ economic aid. Exploiting this dependency, the former colonial powers used such aid as leverage to gain political concessions and access to natural resources from the emerging nations. These economically dependent relationships, which continue to this day, are called “neocolonial” because they signify the continuation of colonization by different means.
Algeria: A special case
Even in the nineteenth century Algeria stood out among France’s colonies in Africa. Most of the French regarded it not as a separate colony but as an extension of France proper, despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population and the special political bodies by which France governed the area.
On November 1, 1954, the Algerian liberation movement, the FLN, led a nationalist uprising against the French in Algeria. This revolt was the product of over a century of tension between the French (and other European) settlers and the local Algerian Muslims. In June 1830, on a pretext, the French had invaded Algeria with a sizeable force—34,000 strong. French troops behaved with abandon, raping and looting, and desecrating mosques and cemeteries. Their behavior set the tone for the next 100 years, in which the French treated the land as if it were theirs for the taking, with hardly a thought for its local inhabitants.
In the early 1830s some 3 million Algerians were living on the land. They were a mix of Berbers, Arabs, Jews from Spain and Portugal, and Ottoman Turks. By far, the Muslim Arabs comprised the largest of the groups. After the French invasion, Europeans began immigrating to Algeria; by 1849, 110,000 Europeans (called colons, or colonists), including 15,000 French, were living in Algeria. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, French officials systematically legislated Algeria’s mostly Muslim population off the land.
By 1940 the European settlers, who comprised just 2 percent of Algeria, owned about a third of its most fertile land, using it to produce wine for export to France, whereas formerly that very land had yielded crops that fed Algeria. Unsurprisingly, the country began suffering a food shortage, with cereal production dropping back to the level of the 1880s, even though the population had tripled. Adding insult to injury, the Europeans invoked racist policies, allowing the use of the most common local language, Arabic, only in Muslim religious schools.
The roots of the FLN’s 1954 uprising reach back to the opposition of ʿAbd al-Qadir, who in the 1830s and 1840s controlled as much as two-thirds of Algerian land and led its mostly Muslim inhabitants against the French. His administrative center was Memcen, a city on the Moroccan border; in 1843 ʿAbd al-Qadir was forced to flee into Morocco, from where he continued to direct raids against the French. He surrendered in 1847, after which the French imprisoned him, despite their assurances that this would not happen; ʿAbd al-Qadir was not freed until 1853. Thirty years later, in 1883, this hero of Algerian independence died in Damascus. His standard, which was green and white, was the one under which the FLN fought and is now the Algerian national flag.
In 1871 a second Muslim uprising broke out in Algeria in protest against increasing colonial control of Muslim territory, and the chronic mistreatment of Algeria’s Muslim majority during a period of drought and famine. The French retaliated against the uprising, seizing a million acres of productive Muslim-held land, and installing an insulting indigénat (or native code) that turned such deeds as “insolence” by a Muslim person into punishable legal offenses. “Insolence” was, of course, defined any way the French wanted to define it. In time the French also imposed highly disproportionate taxes on Muslims in relation to their income, then used the tax revenues to improve life for the Europeans themselves, educating their own children and sprucing up their neighborhoods. Some wealthy or elite Muslims received a French education, forming a class of évolués (“the cultured”), who, despite their attainment of French ways, were shunned by the European colonists. It was among these Muslims that the nationalist movement took root.
In 1927 Étoile Nord-Africain, or “Star of North Africa,” became the first group to call for Algerian independence. A Paris-based movement, it was quickly driven underground, but its demands for universal suffrage, land reform, and Arabic education reached thousands. Its leader, Ahmed Messali Hadj, went to Algeria to organize workers there, establishing the Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA; Party of the Algerian People) in 1937.
During World War II (1939-45), Allied Forces used Algeria as a North African base. The Free French commander there, General Henri Giraud, called upon Muslim Algerians to fight for the Allies, which they did. In 1943, 56 prominent Algerians presented the French in Africa with the “Manifesto of the Algerian People,” a document that decried Algeria’s colonial past and made demands for land, language, and political rights. The French responded by granting full French citizenship to about 60,000 “worthy” Muslims,
an unacceptable compromise to the Algerians. The people grew restive.
Allied forces triumphed in Europe on May 8, 1945, V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. In Algeria the day achieved distinction for another reason; Muslims and colonists clashed violently in the town of Sétif, where an Algerian nationalist parade sparked police retaliation. Records indicate that after the police and military crackdown 103 Europeans died at Sétif, in contrast to 45,000 Algerian Muslims. Nearly a decade of political sparring and civil unrest ensued, climaxing in 1954 when the FLN, claiming that progress was impossible without violence, took up arms and declared the War of Independence (November 1).
Pitting itself against the French army and colonists from 1954 to 1962, the FLN waged a guerilla war. At the outset, France declared its intent to defeat the nationalists with force. The French Minister of the Interior, François Mitterand, declared that “Algeria is France,” a statement repeated again and again throughout the war (Mitterand in Talbott, p. 39). Smarting from its recent defeat in Indochina, the French army was determined to retain possession of Algeria. By the end of 1956 the 400,000 French troops in Algeria outnumbered the FLN guerillas by a ratio of 20 to 1. The French army used every means possible to suppress the nationalists, and because of the clandestine nature of the guerilla army, they suspected all Algerians. The press was censored and controlled. Curfews and searches became routine. Civil liberties were suspended. Algerians were jailed without charges, many of them killed indiscriminately. To discourage outside support for the rebels, the French electrified fences at the border and lined them with land mines.
At the same time, the French government attempted to reform the oppressive colonial structures that had sparked the unrest. Their aim was at least partly self-serving—they hoped to recruit Muslims in the general population to their cause and to weaken the rebel’s grip on Algeria’s rural areas. Ironically the French army, the same army that was killing nationalist combatants and civilians who got caught in the crossfire, helped with the reforms. Its Sections Adminstratives Spéciales (SAS)—a kind of military peace corps—dispensed medical care, oversaw the construction of irrigation systems, advised farmers on improving crop yields, and ran village schools.
In 1956 the FLN moved the war to the capital, Algiers, where the European colonists had congregated. FLN operatives waged violent revolt against the French that included bombings, shootings, and stabbings—an average of 800 shootings and bombings per month in the spring of 1957 (Toth, p. 49). The group had its headquarters in the Casbah, a crowded Algerian ghetto where 80,000 people crammed into tenements, twisting streets, and narrow alleys—a daunting labyrinth that helped FLN rebels elude French patrols. The FLN drew support from petty criminals, hustlers, the unemployed, and the young, whom it transformed, as Fanon discusses, into revolutionary fighters and heroes.
Called the Battle of Algiers, the FLN-sponsored Algerian revolt unnerved the European colonists, who rioted in response to the French government’s inability to protect them. Elite French paratroopers, known as Paras, were sent to Algiers and took control of the city in January 1957. They conducted massive, indiscriminate round-ups of Algerians, frequently torturing and killing their prisoners in hopes of uncovering the FLN’s secret network. Eventually the army broke the guerilla network and killed its leaders; by September 1957 the French army had driven the FLN from the streets of Algiers. Yet despite the defeat, the people still supported the FLN. France was learning that a military win did not mean victory in the war, not if the FLN retained popular support.
The French government regarded victory in Algeria as a political necessity. Its troops often executed their prisoners, officially reporting that they had been killed while attempting to escape. Thousands of Algerian peasants were forcibly moved to resettlement camps to deprive the guerillas of support in the countryside. In France there were protests against the brutal methods of the army, which were compared to those of the Nazis during World War II. The French government persisted, almost blindly, to pursue this course until France itself lost its will to fight.
The Europeans in Algeria contributed to this loss of will. Fearing that de Gaulle (elected French president in 1958) planned to desert their cause, the European minority began conducting terrorist actions inside France, bombing buildings and murdering political foes. Their actions backfired, alienating de Gaulle, who chose to extract France from the war. By then his constituents were criticizing not only the brutality of the army but also the war’s staggering financial and human costs. Believing that it was in France’s best interest to end the debilitating war, de Gaulle accepted Algeria’s independence, and peace finally arrived in 1962. “It is simply mad to believe that our forced domination has any future whatsoever,” wrote de Gaulle. “Decolonization is in our interest and, consequently, our policy” (de Gaulle in Talbott, pp. 153, 204).
Most of Algeria’s Europeans subsequently fled the country: only 120,000 of nearly 1,000,000 Europeans remained behind. A final consequence of the war was the fate of the harkis, the 150,000 Muslim Algerians who had fought for France. Approximately 30,000 harkis were executed by the FLN after the war, bringing the total number of Algerian fatalities to roughly 1,000,000. In contrast, about 17,500 French died in the war.
FILM: THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS
Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s internationally acclaimed 1966 film The Battle of Algiers presents an accurate, realistic, docurnentary-style portrayal of the Algerian people’s struggle against French colonial oppression. Produced only four years after Algeria gained independence and initially banned by the de Gaulle government, the film uses amateur actors and local crowds on location to portray the war in the Casbah from both the insurgents’ and the counter-insurgents’ (the French paratroopers’) points of view. Petty criminals, hustlers, women, the unemployed, and the young all participate in the war for liberation while the French army cracks down on the revolt by arresting and brutally torturing Algerian suspects. The film supports the tenet Fanon discusses in The Wretched of the Earth: only through organized violence can the colonized free themselves from the clutches of the oppressor; the violent struggle transforms the dehumanized masses into human revolutionary agents devoted to freedom and the independence of their nation.
The Wretched of the Earth is divided into five essays: “Concerning Violence,” “Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness,” “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” “On National Culture,” and “Colonial War and Mental Disorders.”
Fanon begins by introducing a central philosophical principle: decolonization is a necessary and historical part of a dialectic, the logical process of the struggle of opposites by which history moves into the present and into the future. The dialectic to which Fanon refers begins with the violence of colonization, which calls into existence decolonization.
Since colonization is a violent phenomenon, it begets its antithesis through violence. Thus, “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” because “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, pp. 35, 61). Violence is thus not an end in itself, but the means to the end of overthrowing colonialism and freeing the oppressed from the psychological and physical shackles of colonialism.
The violence of colonialism—and here “violence” is not only physical, but includes the destruction and eradication of native history, religions, cultures, and traditions—works to make the colonized believe that they are inferior to the colonizer. The revolutionary violence of decolonization is the logical outcome of this process and undoes some of colonization’s violence; it works as a creative, cathartic process by which colonized, dehumanized subjects become human again:
[F]or the colonized people this violence, because 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 that has surged upward in reaction to the settler’s violence in the beginning.
(Wretched of the Earth, p. 93)
Violence is thus necessary because “the ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (Wretched of the Earth, pp. 36-37).
But before the cathartic violence of decolonization unifies the people and breaks the shackles of colonialism, the native turns his aggressiveness inwards. Through tribal feuds, old grudges, and fratricidal warfare, the colonized people release their pent-up aggression on one another. By avoiding the real obstacle and killing one another, the natives prove the colonizers’ contention that they are subhuman beasts.
Spirit religions, zombie myths, occult magic, and fatalistic Christianity (brought over by the colonizer as a means of pyschological control) all function to make the natives believe that unseen phantasms and gods are the source of their ills, and not the colonizer. Their pent-up aggressions are released through dance, seances of spirit possession, exorcism, vampirism, and voodoo, while the real object of armed resistance is again avoided. This further proves to the settlers that the natives are “uncultured” and “backwards” (Wretched of the Earth, pp. 55-58). During the struggle for resistance, however, “a marked alienation from these practices is observed” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 58). The native begins to see things clearly, and abandons rituals of spirit possessions, magic, and fratricidal violence.
In the rest of the first section of “Concerning Violence,” Fanon sketches out how the movement for national liberation occurs, and how the revolution is won. While national bourgeois parties are formed with Western humanistic goals of universal suffrage, democracy, and freedom, these parties simply talk but do not act. They seek through political maneuvering to enrich themselves by replacing the colonizers and reaping the riches from the land. These parties do not aim for revolution, but rather for a compromise with the colonizers in which they will be the only beneficiaries. The real power base of the revolution, however, is the peasant class. The peasants, says Fanon, “have nothing to lose and everything to gain” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 61). The peasant takes up arms and fights for national liberation, turning the whole social structure upside down.
Even after the colonizer is finally defeated, the revolution is still far from being won. The native population must beware of the self-interested bourgeois class and greedy dictators taking over. Second, and more importantly, the people must now build the nation out of “cement mixed with [their] blood and anger” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 93). After the liberation they must fight more abstract causes of oppression, such as poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment. They must, in the third place, beware of foreign domination. In the subsection entitled “Violence in the International Context,” Fanon examines the neocolonial economic relationships that evolve and supplant direct colonialism. After independence, the new nation is faced with poverty, hunger, illiteracy, the absence of infrastructure, and the dearth of doctors and engineers. It confronts a “spectacular flight of capital” when it wins independence and its European colonists and investors flee; capitalist monopolies and other private European companies step in to fill the void on the condition “that this money is used to buy manufactured products and machines: in other words, that it serves to keep the factories in the mother country going” (Wretched of the Earth, pp. 103-104). These conditions further oppress new nations, which, in order to receive aid, capitulate and become economic vassals of the former colonial masters.
Thus, Fanon argues that the newly independent nations must try to avoid placing themselves in such neocolonial situations and, further, that Europe must pay the new nations reparations for the wealth that it stole from them.
In the second essay, “Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness,” Fanon examines, in greater depth, some of the key issues touched upon in the first essay—namely, the role of the peasants as the revolutionary power base and the importance of political education in spurring revolutionary consciousness.
Fanon begins by calling attention to the primary weakness of the nationalist parties: the fact that they are a form of organization adopted by the intellectual, bourgeois elite from the mother country “without the slightest modification” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 108). The mother country created those parties to carry on the struggle of the working class in a highly industrialized society, unlike that of the colonized society, in which the rural populace predominates. In these colonized societies, the role of the revolutionary and of those in the nationalist parties is “to integrate the people of the countryside, to educate them politically, and to raise the level of their struggle” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 117).
Finding themselves committed to a real course of action, revolutionary intellectuals must break with the nationalist parties and throw their lot in with the peasants in the rural areas. After living with them, the revolutionaries will finally understand their wholehearted commitment to revolution. The revolutionary must then work to politically educate and enlighten the peasants.
At this point, Fanon sketches out a brief guide of how the revolution unfolds. His outline corresponds almost exactly to the progression of the Algerian revolution. The revolutionary intellectual takes the revolution to the city, educates the lumpenproletariat, and begins waging war. “[T]hat horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and from their clan, [these people of the urban slums, this lumpenproletariat] constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 129).
Once the urban rebellion is in full swing, the colonizer strikes back with every method of warfare available. The rebels must therefore change their strategy; they begin at this point to wage a guerilla war. Now, however, political education is crucial in order to turn what seems to be a peasant revolt into a full-fledged revolutionary war. There must be broad-based understanding of the objectives; people need to commit themselves entirely to the struggle for their own liberation and for the freedom of the nation, not because they hate the enemy. “The desire for revenge” cannot sustain a war of liberation (Wretched of the Earth, p. 139). If the masses are not properly enlightened, they may end up taking part in the struggle but on the oppressor’s side. This was the case of the harkis, the 150,000 Algerian natives who fought for the French, roughly 30,000 of whom were executed after Algeria gained independence.
Once the people understand all of this, they must fight for as long as it takes.
The war goes on; the enemy holds his own; the final settling of accounts will not be today, nor yet tomorrow, for the truth is that the settlement was begun on the very first day of the war, and it will be ended not because there are no more enemies left to kill, but quite simply because the enemy, for various reasons, will come to realize that his interest lies in ending the struggle and in recognizing the sovereignty of the colonized people.
(Wretched of the Earth, p. 141)
This is almost an exact description of the manner in which Algeria gained its independence, not by killing and expelling the French, but by fighting to the point where the French government realized that its interests lay in ending the war and in recognizing Algeria’s independence.
Once the people gain their freedom, greedy dictators, politicians, bureaucrats, and the bourgeois class seek to profit at the expense of the people, who must remain vigilant in order to preserve all that they have sacrificed for.
In the third essay, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” Fanon examines how national consciousness in many postcolonial nations ends up being “only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 148). National consciousness becomes a “travesty” primarily because the selfserving middle class fails to “put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities” (Wretched of the Earth, pp. 147-49). Instead of striving to develop capacities of production, invention, and labor, all of which are necessary in order to accumulate capital, the national middle class seeks merely to become an intermediary in the economic process. It replaces the former European settlement, occupying positions in the bureaucracy, legal and medical systems, and trade and commerce, and insisting that “all big foreign companies pass through its hands” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 152). The national bourgeoisie begins looting the nation’s wealth and resources, lining its own pockets with gold while the people suffer. It prostitutes the nation through “tourism,” setting up resorts for the Western bourgeoisie, and does not hesitate to invest in foreign banks and countries the profit that it sucks out of its own soil. Similarly, it spends large sums of money on personal pleasures—cars, country houses, and other gratuitous luxuries.
As the national looting continues, ethnic divisiveness, classism, and other developments splinter the people. Certain regions prosper at the expense of the nation. Dictators lull the people with revolutionary rhetoric, while the middle class gets rich. The army grows politically important as discontent multiplies. In the end, national unity exists only during daytime under the watchful eyes of soldiers; at night the people complain of the repressive national party.
In order to avoid this major pitfall, Fanon says that the bourgeoisie in underdeveloped countries should be prevented from installing itself in positions of power. Second, the national party should be decentralized in order to distribute wealth and power evenly through the nation. He suggests moving leaders to locales across the land and shifting the capital of the country to an underdeveloped area. Fanon also contends that the government should take the time to explain its policies, instead of assuming they will not be understood by the people. “[T]he ‘time’ lost in treating the worker as a human being, will be caught up in the execution of the plan” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 154).
In the fourth essay, “On National Culture,” Fanon examines the construction of an authentic national culture. The first effort a decolonized people must make in forging a national culture is to rediscover their rich past. “The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate the nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 211).
Initially, instead of developing a particular national culture, the people tend to pursue the notion of a general black African culture. This is beneficial in that it uplifts people who have been dehumanized by racism, but is fundamentally flawed because it simply caters to the erroneous European assumption that Africans are indistinguishable from one another and denies national and cultural differences. The real goal of the people is to forge a genuine national culture that moves beyond the generalizations based on a common race or a shared continent. This national culture is forged out of the fight for liberation when the native intellectual sees clearly the people he seeks to address, and participates in their mutual struggle for freedom.
The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope. But to ensure that hope and to give it form, he must take part in action and throw himself body and soul into the national struggle.
(Wretched of the Earth, p. 232)
Ultimately, Fanon says, “the conscious and organized undertaking by a colonized people to reestablish the sovereignty of that nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 245).
The final essay, “Colonial War and Mental Disorder,” differs from the rest of the book in that it provides patient histories from Fanon’s tenure at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria. Here Fanon demonstrates that a colonized people is not just dominated. It is a dehumanized people whose pathologies are produced by the violence of colonialism and by the subsequent violence of decolonization. His patients include fighters on both sides of the conflict, as well as Algerian and European noncombatants.
Fanon ends The Wretched of the Earth on a positive, uplifting note, urging the people of the new countries to stop imitating European models of society and to create new ideas of civilization and humankind.
Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.
(Wretched of the Earth, pp. 311-13)
Violence and Fanon
Perhaps one of the most consistently misunderstood themes of The Wretched of the Earth is Fanon’s advocation of violence as the necessary means for national liberation and the restoring of humanity to the colonized.
The colonial situation, says Fanon, is violent from the start. As shown earlier in the entry, the subjugation of the Algerian people began with the raping, looting, and indiscriminate killings inflicted by the French on the Algerians in 1830. During the war for liberation, Fanon learned from victims themselves of the barbaric actions committed by the French who resorted to torture, execution, and “resettlement” of whole villages. When the Algerians began their armed struggle against the colonizers, violence released the tensions of lifetimes of subjugation and oppression. All-out war united the Algerians as never before. The notion of a modern nation is a fairly abstract idea, but physical violence against the French gave the people a concrete cause and goal in which to join together.
Fanon was no stranger to violence himself, having fought for the Free French against the Nazis in World War II. After studying psychiatry, Fanon was sent to Algeria by the French government to work as a member of the French colonial administration. In 1953 he became one of the directors of a French psychiatric hospital outside Algiers that gained a reputation for nurturing the feda’iyin, or freedom fighters, who sacrificed themselves for the cause. Here Fanon learned directly of the cruelty and inhumanity of the French. While treating French soldiers and torturers, he simultaneously treated the feda’iyin, many of them secretly because they were being hunted by the French. Fanon himself became a revolutionary in Algeria, where he was injured by explosive mines and narrowly avoided assassination and kidnapping.
Many people misunderstand Fanon’s call for violence in the decolonization process. There is a danger of misreading Fanon and thinking he advocates blind violence; a danger of confusing the means with the end. It is important to remember that while Fanon advocates violence, he makes it clear that it is only a vehicle to achieve liberation. Violence against the colonizer unites the people, and serves as a cathartic, creative, humanizing force that enables them to gain back freedom, human dignity, and national sovereignty.
In striving to better understand Fanon’s ideas within the general context of decolonization, we must remember that Fanon was not the only Third World revolutionary to promote violence as a liberating force. Ho Chi Minh advocated violence with great success in the Vietminh nationalist movement against France in Indochina. At the start of the conflict in 1946 he exhorted his countrymen: “Those who have rifles will use their rifles; those who have swords will use their swords; those who have no swords will use spades, hoes, or sticks. Everyone must work to oppose the colonialists and save his country!” (Ho Chi Minh, p. 68). In July 1954 the Vietnamese people defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, a famous victory that inspired colonized people everywhere. As Fanon states, “Not a single colonized individual could ever again doubt the possibility of a Dien Bien Phu; the only problem was how best to use the forces at their disposal, how to organize them, and when to bring them into action” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 70).
Likewise Mao Tse-tung, the leader of the Chinese Revolution, maintained that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun”; in fact, he declared, “anything can grow out of the barrel of a gun,” including schools, culture, and mass movements (Mao in Schnan, p. 209). Armed strength and violence determines who controls the nation and its future. Mao thus concurs with Fanon’s premise that violence unifies the nation and forges a new era.
The example of Mahatma Gandhi is often erroneously used to counter the notion that only violence can bring about freedom and national sovereignty. While Ghandi believed that nonviolence requires greater courage than violence, that “[i]t is the acid test of nonviolence that in a nonviolent conflict there is no rancor left behind and, in the end, the enemies are converted into friends,” decolonization in India in fact involved violence (Gandhi, p. 45). Although Ghandi advocated nonviolence as the means to defeat the oppressor, and contributed to the British withdrawal from India, nearly one million Indians were killed after the region was partitioned into Pakistan and India. According to Fanon’s philosophy, the British colonizers benefited from Ghandi’s nonviolence but the indigenous peoples vented their pent-up aggression against the colonizer by massacring one another in a postindependence bloodbath.
Although Fanon advocates violence as a means to liberation, he also exposes its devastating effects in “Colonial War and Mental Disorders.” From the clinical details of individual cases, the true horror of colonial violence and the war for independence comes into focus. Even the dedicated revolutionary must contend with the psychological scars of violence. An FLN fighter, for example, whose own mother was killed, murders a defenseless French woman, then suffers from depression and psychosis. Despite its unflinching examination of such horror, Fanon’s final essay is not a counterpoint to the promotion of violence; rather, it demonstrates that Fanon is intimately aware of the cost of violence. It is this cost that lends urgency to Fanon’s message about nation building. In his view, the new nation must be forged from the revolutionary principles that were put forth in the struggle for liberation. The evils just defeated—colonialism and oppression—must not be allowed to return in other economic or cultural forms, or the cost of violence will have been too dear.
Sources and literary context
Fanon was influenced by the existentialist movement in France and by its leader, Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth. Sartre’s writings on philosophy and politics were extremely popular in France during the late 1940s and 1950s, and his support of Fanon helped secure publication of The Wretched of the Earth
Sartre’s existentialism maintains that the existence of a person has primacy over the person’s essence. An individual is responsible for defining his or her essence—that is, how to live his or her life—even if it conflicts with societal conventions. Fanon applies this idea to colonial society, advocating that individuals take on the collective responsibility to fashion a world of their own making in defiance of the colonial power.
Similarly Fanon also draws upon the ideas of Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ultimately reshaping their ideas into ones of his own. From Hegel, Fanon draws upon the master/slave dichotomy in understanding the structure of the colonized society as being dualistic, one where there is a complete segregation and opposition of both the colonizer and the colonized. Fanon also takes his understanding of decolonization as the necessary outcome of colonialism from Hegel, that is, from Hegel’s understanding of history as a continually evolving, dialectical process. From Marx, who was also greatly influenced by Hegel’s idea of history, Fanon gets his understanding of modern economics, class struggle in industrial society, and some of his terminology (bourgeoisie, lumpenproletariat).
Fanon developed his ideas over more than a decade. As early as 1952 he published Black Skin White Masks, about exploitation on the sugar plantations of Martinique and about the struggles on this French West Indies island. His book A Dying Colonialism (1959), based on his fieldwork in wartime Algeria, discussed the benefits to be gained by a people sharing stress. The Wretched of the Earth capped these years of experience, writings, and thought.
Fanon’s critics “have never ceased to cry shame” because he embraced violence as beneficial (Perinbam, p. 76). The writer Lewis Coser argued that Fanon is wrong; violence does not have the therapeutic value he assigns to it. Hannah Arendt agreed, considering Fanon’s ideas dangerous, even poisonous (Perinbam, p. 76).Yet in the West, The Wretched of the Earth was praised by some who recognized its importance as a delineation of the process of decolonization. A review in Time magazine compared it to the Communist Manifesto and Hitler’s Mein Kampf in importance. Focusing on Fanon’s anti-Western message, the magazine described the work as “not so much a book as a rock thrown through the window of the West” (Time, p. 114). Other reviews echoed this one, adding that the work’s depth lay in Fanon’s blend of theory with his experience in Algeria. Writing for The New Republic, Robert Coles explained Fanon’s success:
What distinguishes this book, turns it from a blazing manifesto to an authentic and subtle work of art, is the author’s extraordinary capacity to join his sharp social and political sense with the doctor’s loyalty to the individual, whatever his particular worth or folly.
(Coles, p. 23)
In the Nation, C. C. O’Brien turned the spotlight away from Fanon’s attack on the West and toward the Algerian perspective offered in the work: “Fanon forces his readers to see the Algerian Revolution—and by analogy other contemporary revolutions—from the viewpoint of the rebels” (O’Brien, p. 674).
In contemporary scholarship, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Frantz Fanon has now been reinstated as a global theorist, and not simply by those engaged in Third World or subaltern studies” (Gates, p. 457). Fanon’s writing has been used to open discussions on British romantic poets, attack other scholars who seem to be practicing colonial forms of history and interpretation, and has been interpreted and cited by major scholars such as Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Benita Parry, Albert Memmi, Abdul Jan-Mohammed, and Gayatri Spivak.
Although Fanon addressed his book to the peoples of the Third World, the audience he reached consisted largely of Western intellectuals. The African peasants and nationalists of whom he writes took little note of his ideas. Yet the negative patterns that he foresaw, the rise of dictators and military power in various nations, quickly came true throughout postcolonial Africa.
In the United States, black activists in the 1960s and 1970s took Fanon seriously, interpreting their own position as analogous to that of the colonized. The Wretched of the Earth had an important influence on the founding of the militant Black Panther Party by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and won high regard from many in the Black Power movement. Radical civil rights activist and Black Panther leader Stokley Carmichael called Fanon “one of my patron saints” (Carmichael in Caute, p. 103). Like others devoted to raising the consciousness of blacks in America, he paid particular heed to Fanon’s idea of violence as a creative force that forges a new man who breaks with Western values.
—John Roleke and Faisal Azam
Caute, David. Frantz Fanon. New York: Viking, 1970.
Coles, Robert. “What Colonialism Does.” The New Republic, 18 September 1965, pp. 20-23.
Davidson, Basil. Modern Africa: A Social and Political History. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 1994.
Gandhi, Mahatma. The Words of Gandhi. Ed. Richard Attenborough. New York: Newmarket Press, 1996.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Critical Fanonism.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 3 (spring 1991): 457-70.
Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh: Selected Writings, 1920-1969. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977.
O’Brien, C. C. Review of The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. The Nation, 21 June 1965, p. 674.
Perinbam, B. Marie. Holy Violence: The Revolutionary Thought of Frantz Fanon. Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1982.
Review of The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. Time, 30 April 1965, p. 114.
Schnan, Stuart R. The Political Thought of Mao Tsetung. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.
Talbott, John. The War Without a Name: France in Algeria, 1954-1962. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Toth, Anthony. “Historical Setting.” In Algeria: A Country Study. 5th ed. Ed. Helen Chapin Metz. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, 1994.