Frantz Fanon : Fifty Years On

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Hicham Yezza is editor-in-chief of Ceasefire.

Fifty years ago this week, Frantz Fanon, one of the major intellectual figures and revolutionary leaders of the decolonization struggle, passed away. Ceasefire editor-in-chief Hicham Yezza pays tribute to an extraordinary legacy.

Fifty years ago, on December 6, 1961, Frantz Fanon – Martinique-born and “Algerien par choix”, medical doctor and psychiatrist, celebrated author and rebel journalist, WW2 veteran and war hero, diplomat and revolutionary – died of Leukaemia in a US hospital. He was 36 years old.

Six days later, on December 12, a detachment of the ALN, the Algerian National Liberation Army, paid full military honours at his funeral on liberated Algerian territory near the Tunisian border, his final resting place. Within six months, on July 5, 1962, the independent Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, the cause to which he dedicated half his active life, was born.

In the fifty years since his death, a lot has happened and yet, in a number of important ways, little has changed. Fanon’s life, from his earliest incursions into revolutionary struggle as a teenager, to the last months of his life, mostly spent lying in bed dictating, with furious urgency, his last work,The Wretched of the Earth, is astonishing in its arc, as if invented out of sheer will, which of course it was.

Two questions present themselves : What does Fanon mean to us today ? Or, more incredibly, should he mean anything in the first place ?

To the first question, the answer is : not enough. Fanon, like most cumbersome saints, whose actual words and actions are a lot harder to live up to than our notions of them, has morphed into a plasticine statue : venerated from afar, invoked in passing, enlisted in whatever the battle of the moment is, but never allowed to speak (itself a deep irony, which those who have read him will feel with especial pain). Although commemorative events did take place this year in Algiers and a few other places, with a new edition of his complete works being released, he remains, in the year of Arab uprisings and Occupy, absurdly absent from our global conversation.

Some people do still read him of course, though in dwindling numbers and for increasingly epistemological purposes, but most mentions of him these days seem to be either from those who, as Edward Said put it, enjoy “rereading Fanon but trashing him at the same time” (Sidney Hook’s attacks in the 80s a case in point) or those who simply use Fanon’s name as mere punctuation, to pause for breath between Aimé Césaire and Malcolm X.

To the second question, the answer is a resounding yes. With four slender volumes, published within less than a decade, Fanon has utterly transformed the debate on race, colonialism, imperialism, otherness, and what it means for one human being to oppress another. Some of his positions might seem rather obvious to those who come to him today heaving under hefty Post-Colonial studies baggage, as if what he had to say is what everyone ought to know. But to quote Eagleton’s apt phrase on Stuart Hall, “if he had the air of a camp-follower, he had usually pitched a fair bit of the camp himself”.

Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, a masterpiece of condensed critical scrutiny and controlled anger, was a focused attempt, through a “psychoanalytic unpacking of the colonized mind” (in Hamid Dabashi’s phrase) to dig deepest into the sources of the White-Black question, or as Fanon put it “le problème noir”. To say the book has retained its relevance would be platitudinous as well as inaccurate : its relevance has, if anything, been sharpened by a half century of betrayals of the decolonization struggle.

Fanon did not live to see Algeria become independent, but as Said repeatedly noted, that might have been a blessing. Seeing revolutionary comrades turn into a Bourgeoisie of state functionaries would have certainly been hard viewing for someone so dedicated to the emancipation of the ‘paysannerie’, The Wretched of the Earth.

Of course, the betrayals continue today. In Brown Skin, White Masks, his brilliant homage to, and updating of, Fanon’s analysis, Dabashi draws a damning portrait of the parallels between the ‘native informers’ denounced by Fanon – notably in his second chapter’s comprehensive demolition of Capecia’s I am a Martinican Woman - and current incarnations, such as Azar Nafizi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Hirsi Ali’s Infidel.

There isn’t, and will never be, enough space to do justice to how devastatingly compelling Fanon’s message was. But it would be remiss of me not to mention what I feel are two particularly neglected zones of shade. First, Fanon was as true an embodiment of l’intellectuel engagé as you’re likely to get. His involvement in revolutionary struggle wasn’t of the touristic kind, which mediocrities like Bernard Henri-Levy have come to epitomise ; he was neck-deep in operational matters within the FLN, at great risk to himself.

Secondly, Fanon’s intellectual approach was of extreme seriousness. One only needs to pay attention to how meticulous he was in reading others. Only someone with an extraordinary commitment to intellectual rigour could have turned György Lukács’ ‘Subject-Master’ dichotomy against itself, demonstrating, with incisive brilliance, that what Lukács intended as a space for reconciliation was, in fact, a time-bomb : the master-subject relation, transposed by Fanon into the settler-native context, was simply unsustainable. As he cautioned in his introduction to BSWM “the explosion won’t take place today. It is too early… or perhaps too late”.

Working with Rabemananjara, Richard Wright, Marcelino Dos Santos, Cheikh Anta Diop as well as Senghor and Césaire, Fanon traced a path for a humanist Pan-Africanism that must be restored. His most famous work, the Wretched of the Earth, still retains the rawness and vivid sense of urgency that must have kept him going throughout those last months. People tend to focus on the first chapter, “On Violence”, and many have done so to attack him based on a vulgar (in Marx’s sense of the word) reading of his words. But I’ve always found the second chapter, on how liberation movements can go wrong, the most fascinating : Fanon seems to have that gift, common to all truly original minds, of being able to spot the iceberg from the merest glimpse of its tip.

Of course, like all truly dangerous thinkers, Fanon continues to receive his fair share of spurious attacks and hatchet jobs. As to serious, well-intentioned criticism, most of it seems to me to be based either on misreadings of him (Sydney Hook) or partial ones (notably Ashis Nandy’s inTraditions, Tyranny and Utopias).

Throughout his work, Fanon makes an unanswerable case for the notion of historical change by which the “oppressed classes are capable of liberating themselves from their oppressors” (Said). Again, this might seem rather obvious from the vantage point of post-9/11 politics, but people would do well to revisit the historical record. Sixty years ago, most liberation movements had started as heresies, rather than the certainties-in-waiting they have become in hindsight.

Fanon should not only be on everyone’s reading list but especially on their re-reading one too. His words, tinged with sadness, resolve, indignation and generosity are, above all, those of a supremely gifted mind and a principled man of action. Although he never got the opportunity to develop his theories into a full-blown framework (he had little to say about the economics of colonisation, for instance), he has left us, in his books and trenchant wartime journalism, a body of critical insights that will continue to inspire millions of revolutionaries and world-changers, all moved by that poetically reflective cry that concludes Black Skin, White Masks :

“Oh my body ! Make me someone who always enquires !”

Frantz Fanon was the author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959), L’An V de la révolution algérienne (1959), The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Towards African Revolution (1964). The Fanon Reader was published by Pluto Press in 2006.