Fanon Can’t Save You Now

March 22, 2021   •   By Todd Cronan

The Political Writings from Alienation and Freedom

Frantz Fanon

THE 23 ESSAYS that appear in The Political Writings were extracted from the collection of recently discovered writings by Frantz Fanon called Alienation and Freedom, first published in French in 2015. Edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J. C. Young and translated by Steven Corcoran, The Political Writings largely draws from Fanon’s contributions to the radical Algerian independence newspaper El Moudjahid, and they date from August 1957 to February 1961. Each was written in direct response to events in an ongoing anticolonial revolution, at the center of which was May 13, 1958, and its aftermath.


Featuring 21 essays from El Moudjahid, The Political Writings functions as a long-lost companion to Toward the African Revolution, first published in 1964, three years after Fanon’s death. There are lingering questions and controversies surrounding the authorship of these essays — all of them unsigned and anonymized — and Khalfa and Young freely acknowledge that some of them were likely “only partly authored by Fanon himself.” It is also the case, as the editors note, that Fanon’s “thinking at least strongly influences them.” Undoubtedly Fanon is their guiding presence.


In their brief but bold introduction, Khalfa and Young, both superb Fanon scholars, sound a welcome note of warning: by “turning [Fanon] into a political icon, his well-argued and very lucid critiques of the possible despotic future of postcolonial societies get buried.” Fanon has become an almost mythical figure in antiracist and anticolonial discourse, and in the process, many of his specific political commitments have been watered down or edited out. Any reader of the vast literature on Fanon might be struck, for example, by the relative neglect of chapter three of The Wretched of the Earth, “The Misadventures of National Consciousness,” in which Fanon raises alarms about the rise of a postcolonial national bourgeoisie. “We have seen how the colonized always dream of taking the colonist’s place. Not of becoming a colonist, but of replacing him,” Fanon wrote at the start of Wretched of the Earth. “For the bourgeoisie,” he goes on to say, “nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period.” Fanon’s relentless attack on elites offers a prescient counter to the scores of corporations today affirming their commitment to Black liberation, a vision that has reached its apotheosis with Goldman Sachs’s $10 billion “investment” in redressing the exclusion of Black women from capital accumulation.


But as Fanon insists, the “motivations” of the bourgeoisie are “essentially different from” those of the worker; serving the former does not trickle down to the latter. Fanon takes up the issue in The Political Writings with a blistering attack on “The Stooges of Imperialism,” a statement directed at Mamadou Dia, head of the Senegalese mission to the UN, a “miserable puppet” who argued to “prolong western rule” in Africa through the establishment of a “French Community” within the colonies. Fanon takes aim at the “African leaders” who recognized the treachery of Dia’s efforts but were content to scour the continent “in search of shekels and sweetmeats of corruption.” Fanon minces no words about the fate of the new bourgeoisie: Dia and his colleagues, as “traitors,” will be ushered into a “Chamber of Horrors,” where they await “liquidation” by the revolutionaries.


According to Fanon, it would be wrong to think that Algeria was simply seeking “political independence,” because it “does not intend to rid itself of political oppression and then to resign itself to forces of economic oppression.” One of the consequences of the contemporary refusal to engage Fanon’s critique of the national bourgeoisie is an instrumentalization of his work for the purposes of neoliberal identity politics. This, too, the editors rightly signal: “By seeing him as the thinker of contemporary identity issues, his essential aim is forgotten: namely, to think and construct freedom as disalienation within a necessarily historical and political process.”


Far too much commentary on Fanon ignores the highly unstable historical and political situation under which his work was written, looking instead to extract a portable theory of colonialism or race from his pages. Fanon explicitly rejected the pursuit of theory outside of a specific context of action. Writing in response to the French Left, he explains, “we have refused to be taken in by the mirage of theories,” an empty “virtuality without practical effect.” Despite ongoing efforts to fashion Fanon as an all-purpose postcolonial or race theorist, it would be better to see him as actively engaged in a changing historical and political process, his thought reflecting and directing a concrete set of circumstances. In his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth, Homi Bhabha wistfully noted that Fanon “now takes his place on the bookshelves alongside CLR James, Sartre, Memmi, Marcuse, Guevara, Angela Davis.” The publication of The Political Writings might begin the process of withdrawing Fanon from the theory shelf and placing him back into the world of organizational praxis.


This is not to say that Fanon avoided methodological statements. In the key essay “African Countries and Their Solidary Combat,” presented as a talk at the All-African Peoples’ Conference in 1958 in Accra, Ghana, Fanon implores listeners that one “ought never to forget to keep [the struggle] tactical without ever altering the strategy of liberating the continent.” By tactical he means one should “seek out tactical alliances with colonial powers with opposed interests” in order to “weaken them” from within, but he strongly cautions his audience to take care that “these alliances do not dent our doctrinal positions.” The doctrine of anticolonialism was singular, the tactical approach to that goal could be manifold. Whatever tactical compromises one might pursue, he also urges, one should never be tempted to separate national interests from the greater African interests. Just as divisions among colonial powers could be used to weaken them, ethnic and cultural difference are a threat to African interests.


On this account, there are two enemies for Fanon: colonialist powers outside Africa and inside Africa. Anticolonialism, he warns, should not be reduced to independence movements, organized around sectarian identities; it is not a “moral position” or “a realm of ethnic awareness.” Ethnic differences, by dividing the colonized against themselves, played directly into the hands of the colonialists who exploited every possible rift to their advantage. But Fanon’s final thought on the matter goes well beyond nationalism and toward economic equality. “If we really want to safeguard our country from regression, paralysis, or collapse, we must rapidly switch from a national consciousness to a social and political consciousness,” he explains. The new government needed a “clear program” committed to the “distribution of wealth and social relations.”


Throughout the essays published in The Political Writings, Fanon responds to the “tactical cleverness” of the French, a subject to which he was especially attuned. In “The Algerian Conflict and African Anticolonialism,” Fanon lays out a critique of the limits of French socialism. At stake, he insists, is the “illusoriness of the famous doctrine according to which organic solidarity exists between the proletariat of colonialist countries and that of colonized peoples.” Because this presumed and spontaneous alignment between international proletariats has been “proven entirely false,” the proletariat must be temporarily replaced by “colonized brothers” across the globe. As he famously argues in chapter two of Wretched of the Earth, “Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity,” one should never “wager on some supposed instinctive and spontaneous solidarity.” Alliances must be organized: one must “elaborate a doctrine, to clarify objectives and draw up a program.” It is the “greatest error,” Fanon avers, to rely on spontaneous alliances based on “hazy ideologies,” because colonialism — this is its most “perverse and condemnable aspect” — can “pit men against each other whom everything unites and that a shared oppression degrades.” Fanon’s debate with French socialists was a tactical one, conceived for an anticolonial war. Fanon assumed that after the war, the temporary unity of the colonized would split into class positions.


Fanon describes a “macabre scene,” one where Black Africa, Douala, Cotonou, Dakar, Abidjan are “at odds with” Algerians, pitting Algerians “against the Dahomeans or the Senegalese.” To fight the many-headed “chimera” the colonized have no choice but to be “monolithic” in their response. It is the “philosophy” of colonialism, Fanon observes, to produce a continuous “minimum of terror,” comprising military, police, administrators, farmers, teachers — like a spider “weav[ing]” a “tight network” to slowly “immobilize” its subjects. Under these conditions, no Frenchman is innocent, all are equally guilty of abetting a fascist system.


In a surprising and blistering critique of Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen! (1957), Fanon rejects Wright’s “sterile” effort to “speak to the ‘heart’ of his oppressors.” Why? Because “history contains no example of a dominant power yielding to the tongue-lashings […] of those that it crushes.” Wright’s empty “sentiments and good sense” — which Fanon goes on to detail — make no dent “against material interests.” Fanon associated Wright with Albert Memmi, pairing Wright’s book with Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, and pronounces both guilty of “generality,” the Black man and the Arab each construed as an “abstract figure.” But unlike Memmi, who analyzed psychological mechanisms in depth, Wright offered a “global and, consequently, superficial view.”


What is most striking about Fanon’s critique of Wright is the sense in which it could be directed at Fanon’s readers today. Here is his summary of Wright’s first chapter:


[W]e find a rapid, confused enumeration of the most common attitudes of the Black towards the White. For example, Wright observes that Blacks always think, feel and react with reference to Whites; that they take up on their own behalf, by internalizing it, their purported inferiority; that they are distrustful of Whites; and, being distrustful, they tend to play a role in front of them; that, in order to compensate their current misfortune, they seek refuge in the evocation of the past; that, liberated, they continue to define themselves with reference to their former masters, whether they fear a new sort of slavery, or whether they give themselves over to the “religion of industrialization,” to the “cult of sacrifice,” to the “mystique of figures,” in order to accomplish their economic independence as fast as possible and liberate themselves from the colonial yoke.


As Fanon well knew, one might confuse this for an all-too-rough summary of Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks at the age of 27, describing his own encounters with racism and providing a phenomenology of the production and construction of Blackness. In recent years, the book has taken on new life as a kind of guidebook to contemporary racism in ways that would be either unrecognizable or averse to Fanon’s aims. Even during Fanon’s brief life, the book took on an outsize importance to the degree that by the time he wrote The Wretched of the Earth his political commitments had shifted significantly, a point exemplified by his response to Wright. Fanon is quick to note that Wright’s list of grievances is “not false,” but rather their “generality — to say nothing of their banality — prevents them from being forceful.” The critique is “abstract, without direct relation to the concrete.”


Fanon is particularly withering about Wright’s fixation on “black American poets.” “It is true,” Fanon writes, that “black writers and poets all endure their own suffering, that the drama of consciousness of a westernized Black, torn between his white culture and his negritude, can be very painful.” Painful, yes, but “this drama,” “after all, kills no one”; Black poetry is “too particular to be representative.” There is, he insists, a “vital, material order” that Wright ignores in his obsession with elite culture, the “misfortune of the colonized African masses, exploited, subjugated.” Against this concrete reality, the “spiritual rifts of the ‘elite’ are a luxury that they are unable to afford.” Fanon accepts that even if Wright did not personally encounter the “misery of the African masses,” he could have attempted to understand a reality other than his own. He could have given “figures (in infant mortality, malnourishment, salaries),” for instance, which are “more convincing, more significant, than a poem,” if the aim were to alert the European to the “absolute destitution” of the African masses.


But Fanon reserves his greatest scorn for Wright’s “philosophy.” Wright sums up the “common problem” between whites and Blacks as the “problem” of “freedom.” How, Fanon wonders, does one achieve that freedom? “The West,” Wright says, “must be prepared to accord the elite its freedom,” “give the tools to that elite and let them finish the job.” Fanon’s retort is blunt: if we are to “trust in” the elite, then there is no point in “questioning of white man, of his methods, of his presence in Africa as an occupier and as an exploiter.” There is no path from the elite to liberation. History, Fanon concludes, has taught Wright nothing.


Fanon’s view of Black poetry in the Political Writings is really no different from what he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks. In the earlier book he clearly admires Native Son, but he has no patience for cultural politics. Whatever “interest” one might have in the history of “Black civilization” or “Black literature,” he writes, “we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year-old kids working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe.” Fanon rejects out of hand what he calls the “constantly affirmed concern with ‘respecting the culture of the native populations,’” an attitude that serves to provide cover for further acts of exploitation.


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One of the last essays printed in The Political Writings, “Africa Accuses the West,” reviews the details surrounding Patrice Lumumba’s assassination by Belgian forces in the Congo. It also provides a picture of the changing nature of the revolution at the time of Fanon’s death a few months later. Three months after independence, Katanga and South Kasai, a region rich with copper and uranium mines and defended by Belgian forces, seceded from the central government under the leadership of Moïse Tschombé. When the UN and the West refused to send support to the Congo, Lumumba called on the Soviet Union for assistance, a decision that incensed the United States. (As Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick conclude in Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba [2015], it was the US, working with the Belgians to defend their financial interests in the Congo, who planned Lumumba’s assassination.) As Fanon makes clear, the motivation for the killing was to “dispossess the future Congolese state” of economic security. The “point” of the assassination, he writes, was “to deprive the young Republic of its main revenues, to doom it to economic dependency.”


The tone of this last essay stands in striking contrast to one written two years earlier. “The Rising Anti-Imperialist Movement and the Slow-Wits of Pacification” announces the rise of a “New World,” the progress of “the universal, anti-imperialist revolution.” In Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, colonialist forces are in full retreat and the “grandiose” new community is emerging “in full gestation.” Ever since the Bandung Conference of 1955, “all-powerful waves are sweeping away, one after the other, the most deeply rooted imperialist strongholds.” The essays in The Political Writings track the history of Fanon’s optimistic — or is it simply fantastic — vision of a “dying colonialism” to a tenuous postcolonialism. Fanon’s writings, some of the most intense political writing of the century, reflect the turmoil of his moment and seek a way out through a series of provisional and historically specific solutions. His work traverses a range of issues and attitudes: the changing tactics of combat, a euphoric sense of possibility, and grim warnings about the capacity of capitalism to reinvent itself with new waves of bourgeois nationalists. What The Political Writings shows is the range of problems and solutions faced by one of the great leftists of the 20th century; what the book does not show is a theory of how race or colonialism “works.” And even if Fanon cannot save us now, we might save ourselves by giving up the effort of looking for a savior and look at solving our problems, with our tools, instead.


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Todd Cronan is associate professor of Art History at Emory University. His most recent book is Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (2014).