Frantz Fanon’s legacy remains with us as a challenge that another world is possible, writes David Austin.
As a young man growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, I considered Third World Books and Crafts on Bathurst St. a shrine to which I made weekly pilgrimages. In these formative years, I, like so many other young men and women who frequented the store, was exposed to writers and thinkers - Audre Lourde, Claude McKay, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cheikh Anta Diop, C.L.R. James - and a range of ideas such as Pan-Africanism, socialism, Third Worldism, and anti-imperialism. Sadly, the bookstore no longer exists. It expired with Leonard Johnston, or Lennie, as we affectionately called him, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn Johnston, was not only the proprietor but also the heart and soul of a remarkable institution.
It was Lennie who first exposed me to Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. Like most people who read this book for the first time, I was gripped by the piercing reason and his intense, vivid, and dramatic writing. The Martinican clinical psychiatrist literally wrote the book on his deathbed, ravaged by leukemia as his body teemed with an excess of leucocytes. At the time, he was actively engaged in the Algerian liberation struggle, serving as the Front de libération nationale’s (FLN) ambassador to Ghana.
The FLN was at the forefront of Algeria’s grueling battle against French colonialism and Fanon had earned the respect of the FLN during his tenure as chef de medicin at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in the mid-1950s. There he put his life at risk by treating FLN fedayin who had been tortured by the French. He would often finish treating an Algerian, and then move on to a French police officer or official suffering from nervous exhaustion or trauma, a direct result of the demands of enforcing an oppressive colonial order. To add to matters, he received anonymous death threats and it was only a matter of time before the hospital would be raided and Fanon arrested for assisting the FLN. Unable to keep up the delicate balancing act, Fanon submitted his letter of resignation to the Resident Minister, Governor General of Algeria. True to his form, he did so dramatically, publicly denouncing the horrors of French colonialism in Algeria.
‘For nearly three years I have placed myself wholly at the service of this country and of the men who inhabit it. I have spared neither my efforts nor my enthusiasm. There is not a parcel of my activity that has not had as its objective the unanimously hoped-for emergence of a better world. But what can a man’s enthusiasm and devotion achieve if everyday reality is a tissue of lies, of cowardice, of contempt for man ? What good are intentions if their realization is made impossible by the indigence of the heart, the sterility of the mind, the hatred of the natives of this country ? If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalization. What is the status of Algeria ? A systematized de-humanization. It was absurd to undertake, at whatever cost, to bring into existence a certain number of values, when the lawlessness, the inequality, the multi-daily murder of man were raised to the status of legislative principles. The events in Algeria are a logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralize a people. For many months my conscience has been the seat of unpardonable debates. And their conclusion is the determination not to despair of man, in words, myself. The decision I have reached is that I cannot continue to bear a responsibility at no matter what cost, on the false pretext that there is nothing to be done. For all these reasons I have the honour, Monsieur Ministre, to ask you to be good enough to accept my resignation and to put an end to my mission in Algeria.’
The minister’s response was swift and decisive. Fanon was expelled from Algeria and he eventually made his way to the FLN headquarters in Tunisia.
In retrospect, Fanon’s destiny appears to have been tied to Algeria from the beginning. As a medical student specialising in clinical psychiatry in France in the 1950s, he treated impoverished Algerians, leading him to sarcastically remark, ‘if the standard of living made available to North Africans in France is higher than the one he was accustomed to at home, then there is a good deal to be done in his country, in that “other France”.’
Fanon had also trained for combat in Algeria as a soldier in the French army during the Second World War. It was during this first visit to Algeria that he encountered the virus of racism that somehow, apparently, seems to have eluded him in Martinique for most of his life. White French troops were separated from Black West Indians, who were supposed to be French. Black African soldiers were also segregated from French troops, as were Arab Africans, who the French reviled and treated like pariahs on their own soil. Fanon lived this experience at the very moment that the French army set out to confront German fascism, with its notions of racial purity. The irony of this situation was not lost to Fanon.
The war undoubtedly shaped Fanon’s understanding of violence. Fanon entered the war as an adolescent. But its endless carnage and bloodletting served as his rite of passage to adulthood. It shook him to the core and purged him of the idealism he harbored when he joined the Free French Army. The war represented Fanon’s ‘moment of vision’ and this experience shaped the direction that the rest of his life would take.
‘Les damné de la terre’, (‘The Wretched of the Earth’), is Fanon’s last political will and testament. The book was a product of Fanon’s active engagement in the Algerian liberation struggle where he witnessed first hand the brute reality of colonialism. It’s a prophetic work in which Fanon dissects colonialism’s destructive social and psychological impact, using Algeria and the African continent as his model. Since its publication in 1961, the book has been the subject of prolonged controversy, most of which is based on the first chapter of the book entitled ‘On Violence’. Both Fanon supporters and detractors have exploited this chapter in order to support their cause. For many of them, Fanon advocates wanton violence as the sole means of eliminating colonial oppression, and as an antidote to the pent-up anxiety and trauma that colonialism breeds in the colonised.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Fanon is generally read too literally when, as York University professor Atu Sekyi-Otu and others have argued, he should be read, at least in part, in a literary way. Like the writing of his fellow Martinicans Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Rafaël Confiant - and it is often forgotten that Fanon was a child of the Caribbean - Fanon’s vivid and dramatic prose was influenced by the literary style of the Martinican poet and statesman Aimé Césaire. In his lyrical masterpiece, ‘Return to My Native Country’, Césaire declared,
‘my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamor of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience.’
Césaire taught Fanon at the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique and his compelling, highly emotive manipulation of the French language left a lasting impression on Fanon. Whether in his poetry, his prose writing such as ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, or his plays, Césaire the lyricist found resonance in Fanon’s work as the following passage on dance, rites, and ritual under colonisation illustrates. Unable to lash out against the coloniser, the ‘natives’ attempt to exorcise their demons through ceremonial catharsis :
‘The native’s relaxation takes precisely the form of muscular orgy in which the most acute aggressivity and the most impelling violence are canalized, transformed and conjured away. The circle of the dance is a permissive circle : it protects and permits. At certain times on certain days, men and women come together at a given place, and there, under the solemn eye of the tribe, fling themselves into a seemingly unorganized pantomime, which is in reality extremely systematic in which by various means - shakes of the head, bending of the spinal column, throwing of the whole body backwards - may be deciphered as in an open book the huge effort of a community to exorcise itself, to liberate itself, to explain itself…There are not limits - for in reality your purpose in coming together is to allow the accumulated libido, the hampered aggressivity, to dissolve as in a volcanic eruption. Symbolic killings, fantastic rites, imaginary mass murders - all must be brought out. The evil humors are undamned, and flow away with a din as of molten lavas.’
At times, Fanon appears to be making a statement, when in actual fact he is either describing a situation as it exists, or making a theatrical claim, only to recant it in another section, as if he was writing scenes in a play. He wrote with the fluid pen of a playwright and, for him, both the colonised and the coloniser were locked in a dramatic struggle, and each stage of this struggle is like an act or a scene in a play. The stage is set in the opening passages of the book :
‘National Liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth : whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon. At whatever level we study it - relationships between individuals, new names for sports clubs, the human admixture at the cocktail parties, in the police, on the directing boards of national or private banks - decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men. Without any period of transition, there is a total, complete, and absolute substitution.’
Having divided the colonised-coloniser relationship into its solitudes, Fanon recants his statement, or at least modifies it. In the next act he provides a more nuanced picture of the colonised, now consciously enmeshed in a struggle for liberation, but whose leaders constantly betray their ideals and aspirations. Here the image of the altruistic nationalist leader suffers a crucial blow.
‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manicheism of the settler - Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians - realize as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the Whites and that the fact of having a national flag and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the population to give up their interests or privileges. The people come to understand that natives like themselves do not lose sight of the main chance, but quite on the contrary seem to make use of the war in order to strengthen their material situation and their growing power. Certain natives continue to profiteer and exploit the war, making their gains at the expense of the people, who as usual are prepared to sacrifice everything, and water their native soil with their blood. This discovery is unpleasant, bitter, sickening : and yet everything seemed to be so simple before : the bad people were on one side, and the good on the other. The clear, unreal, idyllic light of the beginning is followed by a semi-darkness that bewilders the senses.’
Likewise, Fanon’s treatment of violence in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ represents some of his most vivid, imaginative, and dramatic writing. It brings to life the lived experience of colonial oppression and psychoses, and the desperate desire of the colonised to be liberated. In the first phase of his analysis, colonial oppression is turned inward, manifesting itself in fratricide among the colonised.
‘By throwing himself with all his force into the vendetta, the native tries to persuade himself that colonialism does not exist, that everything is going on as before, that history continues. Here on the level of communal organizations we clearly discern the well-known behavior patterns of avoidance. It is as if plunging into a fraternal bloodbath allowed them to ignore obstacle, and to put off till later the choice, nevertheless inevitable, which opens up the question of armed resistance to colonialism. Thus collective autodestruction in a very concrete way is one of the ways in which the native’s muscular tension is set free. All these patterns of conduct are those of the death reflex when faced with danger, a suicidal behaviour which proves to the settler (whose existence and domination is by them all the more justified) that these men are not reasonable human beings.’
In the next phase of Fanon’s analysis, violence among the colonised is externalised and targeted at the coloniser, in the struggle for liberation. Fanon employs the notion of violence almost metaphorically to illustrate the process that propels the colonised out of the suffocating atmosphere of colonialism towards freedom. Here the once hapless colonial subject canalises its intellectual and physical energies towards the goal of liberation, not simply as something desirable, but as a concrete and attainable goal.
‘During the struggle for freedom, a marked alienation from these practices is observed. The native’s back is to the wall, the knife is at his throat (or, more precisely, the electrode at his genitals) : he will have no more call for his fancies. After centuries of unreality, after having wallowed in the most outlandish phantoms, at long last the native, gun in hand, stands face to face with the only forces which contend for his life - the forces of colonialism. And the youth of a colonized country, growing up in an atmosphere of shot and fire, may well make a mock of, and does not hesitate to pour scorn upon the zombies of his ancestors, the horses with two heads, the dead who rise again, and the djins who rush into your body while you yawn. The native discovers reality and transforms it into the pattern of this customs, into the practice of violence and into his plan for freedom.’
Fanon is writing about freedom which, in the case of Algeria, like other anti-colonial struggles, represented an armed struggle against the barbarity and dehumanisation of French colonial rule. It was an inherently violent process because violence was embedded in colonialism.
Much of the hullabaloo stems from passages like the following : ‘At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction.’ At a cursory reading, the passage appears to be a promotion of violence as cathartic release. But at a closer read, Fanon’s language is very specific. The words ‘At the level of individuals’ are crucial. Fanon is sharing his first-hand observations as a clinical psychiatrist. He was treating Algerian patients who were engaged in a life and death struggle against French settlers who had killed, brutalised, and maimed Algerian women and men. For some of them, violence was literally a cathartic act which, in absence of an impartial judiciary, police force, or any other official institutions willing to defend the rights of Algerians - sadly and traumatically - became their sole source of release.
In a chapter of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ entitled, ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorder’, Fanon describes a series of clinical cases. One of them involved two Algerian brothers who murdered their European friend. They had both lost family members at the hands of the French and appear to have killed the friend simply because he himself was French. Naturally, Fanon did not condone the arbitrary killing by the brothers. But as a psychiatrist, he sought to understand why they did it. He concluded that, like so many of his other patients, the brothers were afflicted with ‘psychiatric phenomena entailing disorders’ that were directly linked to their colonial condition. In other words, for Fanon, random violence was not normal behaviour but a chronic part of an unhealthy and oppressive society.
Fanon did not prescribe violence. He diagnosed it and sought to explain it. He cringed at wanton acts of violence and, despite his medical training, is said to have had a strong aversion to the sight of blood. And yet he could not ignore Algeria’s reality, or that of any other society where the coloniser used violence to subvert and repress the life chances of those they colonised. It is puzzling how such a common feature of colonial society has been so controversial. Violence and colonialism go hand-in-hand. Violence is not only used to subjugate colonised peoples ; it conditions their very existence because it is held in reserve, for when the ‘the natives get out of hand’.
But there is another reason to carefully read Fanon. At a time when headlines of ‘Black-on-Black’ violence routinely dominate the headlines (does the ‘white-on-white’ crime exist ?), Fanon reminds us that alienation, poverty, and marginalisation are responsible for much of the social and psychological ills of our time. And while it might be too formulaic to ascribe a simple cause-effect relationship to all social problems, there is no doubt that the fratricide that continues to clip so many lives in North American and European cities is directly related to high unemployment, diminished life chances, and the profound sense of social estrangement that so many young people feel.
This picture is clear enough in metropolitan centres like Toronto and Montreal, or cities like London or Glasgow. Scotland’s brutal orgies of ‘booze and blades’ among rival gangs of white youth led the United Nations to designate it the most violent country in the ‘developed’ world several years ago. It is also one of Europe’s poorest countries. A quarter of Scotland’s children alone live in poverty and are dependent on government assistance.
In his February 2002 National Post column, ‘Frantz Fanon : A Poisonous Thinker Who Refuses to Die’, writer Robert Fulford claims that ‘it was Fanon who brought into modern culture the idea that violence can heal the spiritually wounded’ and that Fanon ‘argued that violence was necessary to Third World peoples not just as a way to win their liberty but, even more, because it would cure the inferiority complex that had been created by the teachings of white men.’ He also informs us that ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ ‘went into six editions in Arabic’, scandalously insinuating a relationship between Arabness and violence. This popular reading of Fanon is sorely misguided, if not disingenuous. It perpetuates the image of Fanon as an apostle of violence. But Fanon was not an avatar of violence any more than Fulford is a proponent of non-violence. Who today questions whether the Vietnamese were justified in taking up arms when US bombs rained down on their villages, killing and maiming tens of thousands of innocent civilians ? Did the Americans engage in war to liberate themselves from England ?
Fulford also believes that Fanon ‘has receded into history’, but this point could not be further from the truth. Fanon continues to resonate with the oppressed and dispossessed of the world. He has been the subject of at least two films, with another one soon to be released by Danny Glover’s film company, Louverture Films. His ideas are studied in departments of philosophy and political science, and in post-colonial and cultural studies programs all over the world. His influence in the field of psychiatry and psychology is growing, and a steady flow of Fanon biographies and anthologies suggests that, despite the tremendous impact of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s, we are only now beginning to understand the breadth and depth of his ideas.
When Robert Fulford suggests that Fanon stubbornly evades death, he is right. Like a festering wound that refuses to heal, the inequalities that Fanon so vividly denounced are still with us today. Like Lennie Johnson, who played his part in wiping the fog from our eyes, the ghost of Fanon continues to haunt us, not as a spooky apparition, but as a challenge to us to imagine that another world is possible, and to concretely commit ourselves to bringing that world into being.