Key thinker: Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)
Frantz Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique (today an overseas department of France) to a Black father and a mother of Afro-Martinican and white Alsatian descent (Gordon, 2015). Fanon’s family belonged to Martinique’s Black bourgeoisie (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx) and could afford to send him to the Lycée Victor Schoelcher, the most prestigious high school in the country (https://iep.utm.edu/fanon/). At the Lycée Fanon was taught by the poet and anti-colonial activist Aimé Césaire (see Key Thinker: Aimé Césaire), whose Négritude movement advocated for a shared Black culture as a source of resistance against racist white society. Césaire and Négritude would remain important influences throughout Fanon’s life; it allowed him to push back against the assimilationism of Martinique’s middle classes (https://iep.utm.edu/fanon/). But Fanon’s later work broke with Négritude, and he often criticized the movement for its romantic view of Africa and for its essentialist idea of a unified Black culture.
In 1944, Fanon left Martinique to join the Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. He arrived in Europe via North Africa where he first visited Algeria, the country that would later become his home (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3723-frantz-fanon-in-algiers). In a training camp in Morocco, Fanon was confronted with the strict racial hierarchies in the French forces: white soldiers were at the top of the hierarchy, West Indians like Fanon occupied a middle position, and the tirailleurs sénégalais, the Black African soldiers, occupied the lowest position (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized). Fanon was wounded in battle near the German border, and was forced to return to Martinique in 1945. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a medal of honour for soldiers who perform heroic acts in combat (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/12/06/frantz-fanons-enduring-legacy).
After the war, Fanon returned to France to study medicine and psychiatry at the University of Lyon (https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/f/a.htm#fanon-frantz). In Lyon, he discovered that despite his self-identification as a Frenchman of Caribbean origin, the French viewed him as Black; regardless of how well he had mastered French language or culture, he would continue to be an outsider in racist French society. This form of anti-Black racism was entirely at odds with Fanon’s experience of the complex racial politics of his native Martinique (https://iep.utm.edu/fanon/). Fanon hoped to interrogate these experiences in his medical thesis, which was rejected by the university but later published as Black Skin, White Masks (1952). While in France, Fanon had a daughter with a French woman, Mireille, but the couple split shortly after. Soon after, Fanon married Josie Fanon (neé Marie-Josèphe Dublé), a native of Lyon and daughter of left-wing trade unionists (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized). Josie remained Fanon’s life companion and intellectual partner until his death. Because Fanon didn’t like to write down his essays, he often dictated them to Josie who would type and sometimes edit them (Gordon, 2015).
From 1953 to 1956, Fanon served as head of psychiatry at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frantz-Fanon). In Algeria, he became involved with the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN), which was waging a violent anti-colonial struggle against the French. When the FLN was officially banned and its members persecuted, Fanon allowed them to use the hospital to hold meetings (see 28.2. Fanon’s Life). At the hospital, Fanon was treating both FLN combatants and French servicemen; he believed that both were victims of the system of colonial violence that they were trapped in (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized). Fanon was exiled from Algeria for his political organising and forced to settle in Tunis. In the following years, Fanon would serve as editor of the FLN’s newspaper, El Moudjahid, and ambassador of the provisional Algerian government to Ghana (https://iep.utm.edu/fanon/). In 1960, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia, which he succumbed to while seeking treatment in the United States. He was 36 years old.
Fanon’s early work is marked by his experiences of anti-Black racism after moving to France. He discovered, for example, that the experience of Blackness cannot be separated from the projection of Blackness by white society. For Fanon, Black people could never really be themselves; they were always constrained by the white society and forced to form their identity in relation to its racial and sexual stereotypes (see 28.2. Fanon’s Life). But the plight of Algerians in the country also opened his eyes to how other racialized groups experienced everyday racism (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized). Fanon developed a distinctive approach to the study of the source and effects of mental disorders (see Key Concept: Psychopathology). He argued that because certain neuroses had their origins in social alienation, they could not be treated by psychiatry; rather, these neuroses were symptoms of larger social problems that pointed not to abnormalities in the patient but in society. With this approach, Fanon hoped to challenge the racist prejudices of psychiatrists who argued that the mental disorders that affected North Africans or Black people were either natural (i.e., ontologically given) or imaginary. But he also showed that the total transformation of social relations was the only way to cure certain neuroses, since these are reproduced by oppressive social relations.
Fanon is best known for The Wretched of the Earth (1961), his account of the Algerian struggle for decolonization (see Key Concept: Decolonization). While Fanon’s other books like A Dying Colonialism (1959) or Toward the African Revolution (1964) cover similar themes, The Wretched of the Earth stands out for its rhetorical power. In the years after its publication, the book became ‘a bible’ for revolutionaries across the world, from Bobby Sands, leader of the provisional IRA, to the anti-apartheid activist and Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (see Key Concept: Revolutionary Leaders). In the book, Fanon shifts his focus from anti-Black racism towards a broader analysis of the effects of colonialism at an individual, cultural, and political level (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frantz-fanon/#WretEart). Fanon’s meditation on the anti-colonial revolution is by no means limited by his case study, Algeria; rather, it is a generalized narrative of decolonization as a historical process (see 28.2. Fanon’s Life). For Fanon, decolonization is a ‘program of complete disorder’ which ‘sets out to change the order of the world’ (Fanon, 2004, 2). In short, it is a process of complete social transformation.
Fanon argues that there are three common responses to colonization by the colonized subject: assimilation, anger, and, finally, the dream of alternative worlds (see 28.4. The Violence of Colonization and Decolonization). But none of these responses can engender the transformation of the physical world: the dream of freedom is not freedom itself. The final stage in the psychic process of decolonization comes when the colonized subject stops trying to internalize their aggression (see Fanon, 2004, 21). Like Gandhi, Fanon thought that decolonization required the destruction of colonial culture and the refashioning of the colonial subject, i.e., the formation of a new kind of human. But their theories diverge on the question of anti-colonial violence (see 28.4. The Violence of Colonization and Decolonization). This view of violence is at odds with Hannah Arendt, who argues that violence can never lead to true political power (see Chapter 18 on Hannah Arendt), and Gandhi, who emphasized the purifying force of nonviolence (see Chapter 26 on Mahatma Gandhi).
Fanon’s positive assessment of anti-colonial violence has some similarities with Emma Goldman’s thought on revolutionary violence: both argue that the violence of the oppressed is a necessary step in the undoing of the violent social order that oppressed them in the first place (see Chapter 25 on Emma Goldman). For Fanon, the colonized subject can only regain their humanity by eliminating the colonizer; as he controversially puts it, ‘life can only spring out of the rotting corpse of the settler’. But individual transformation isn’t the only positive outcome of anti-colonial violence: when violence is used for a common cause, Fanon argues, it can bind the people together so that they can form a sense of unity and solidarity (Fanon, 2004, 50). But Fanon is not the uncritical supporter of violence that Jean-Paul Sartre makes him out to be. Fanon ends his book with descriptions of the different mental disorders that afflict both revolutionaries and the colonizers after the end of the war (Fanon, 2004, 181). These harrowing pages show that he was clearly aware of the price of revolutionary violence.
Fanon also warned that colonial structures of oppression could remain in place after formal independence (see 28.5. Achieving Lasting Decolonization). His analysis of neocolonialism (see Key Concept: Neocolonialism) showed that colonising powers could continue to oppress former colonies by collaborating with a new indigenous elite that supports their interests in the country. The national bourgeoisie—a group of educated elites who inhabit the structures of the colonial state after independence—don’t govern in the interests of the people but of themselves and the multinational corporations that dominate the country’s economy. The sense of national unity that emerged during the anti-colonial struggle is now used to pacify and intimidate the population; the interests of the nation are made synonymous with those of the bourgeoisie whose symbolic gestures reinforce a false sense of national belonging (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/12/06/frantz-fanons-enduring-legacy). The current political and economic situation of many postcolonial African states shows that Fanon’s warnings were justified. Fanon remains an indispensable thinker, whose work on the anti-colonial revolution and the pitfalls of decolonization continues to be relevant today.
Adam Shatz, “Where Life is Seized”, London Review of Books, 19 January 2017.
Fanon, Frantz. Alienation and Freedom. Edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Gordon, Lewis Ricardo. What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. London: Hurst & company, 2015.
Pankaj Mishra, “Frantz Fanon’s Enduring Legacy”, The New Yorker, 29 November 2021.