Monday 18 March 2024

Frantz Fanon, iconic freedom fighter: “What we want is to move forward all the time, night and day, in the company of man, all men”

Mr. Shatz is the U.S. editor of The London Review of Books and the author of “The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon.”

The shock of the new, in political life, often sends us back to the past in search of an intellectual compass. Amid the rise of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsanaro and other authoritarian leaders, Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, enjoyed a surge of attention, and Arendt herself acquired a prophet-like status among liberals seeking to understand how their world had gone so wrong. The threat of illiberal nationalism hasn’t faded — on the contrary — but in an age consumed with racism, police violence and the legacy of European colonialism in the Middle East and Africa, Arendt’s popularity is increasingly rivaled by that of a man she both sharply criticized and grudgingly admired: Frantz Fanon.

Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and anticolonial militant, who grew up in a middle-class Black family in French colonial Martinique, was not merely a thinker; he was a political theoretician, a fiery spokesman for Algeria’s independence movement, the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.), which he joined while working as a psychiatrist in Blida, on the outskirts of Algiers. He captured, as no other writer of his time did, the fury engendered by colonial humiliation in the hearts of the colonized. He was also a startlingly prescient analyst of contemporary ills — the enduring psychological injuries of racism and oppression, the persistent force of white nationalism and the scourge of autocratic, predatory postcolonial regimes.

Fanon wrote at the height of the Cold War, but, with no less prescience, he regarded the East-West struggle as a passing sideshow, of far less consequence than the divisions between North and South, of the rich world and the poor world. If the colonial world was, in his words, “a world cut in two,” our postcolonial world seems scarcely less so. Just consider the starkly different responses to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — or South Africa’s case against Israel, on the charge of genocide — in the global north and the global south.

Much of the writing Fanon produced in his short lifetime — he died at 36, of leukemia — was in the form either of psychiatric studies or propaganda dashed off for the purpose of revolutionary instruction. It gives off the heat of battles that haven’t ended, battles over colonialism and racial injustice. Not surprisingly, Fanon’s name has been invoked in discussions of everything from the precariousness of Black lives to the campaign to repatriate African art objects, from the refugee crisis to Hamas’s murderous attack on Oct. 7. It’s not as if his work ever vanished. But it hasn’t been cited with such frequency or urgency since the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers, Palestinian guerrillas and Latin American revolutionaries pored over copies of “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon’s 1961 anticolonial manifesto.

Back then, Fanon was a minor celebrity on the radical left. Today he is an icon, enlisted on behalf of a range of often wildly contradictory agendas: Black nationalist and cosmopolitan, secular and Islamist, identitarian and anti-identitarian. He’s the subject of two forthcoming biopics, and “The Wretched of the Earth” even shows up as a prop in an episode of “The White Lotus.” Left-wing artists, academics, activists and therapists hungrily rummage through his writings for catchphrases (and there are many) about the psychological effects of white domination, racist misrepresentations of the Black body, the meaning of the Muslim head scarf, the anger of the colonized and the exhibitionist violence of imperial powers. But the far right has also had a longstanding fascination with his work: both the writer Renaud Camus and the French politician Éric Zemmour, proponents of the racist Great Replacement theory, are readers of Fanon.

After the murder of George Floyd, protesters held up banners quoting Fanon’s observation in “Black Skin, White Masks,” a study of racism published in 1952 when he was 27 years old, that the oppressed revolt when they can no longer breathe. Since Oct. 7, he has been celebrated by pro-Palestinian students — and denounced by their critics — for his defense of violence by the colonized in the first chapter of “The Wretched of the Earth.” What Fanon’s contemporary admirers and detractors have in common is that many, if not most, of them appear not to have read past the first chapter, portraying this complex and challenging thinker as little more than a supporter of revolutionary violence by any means necessary — a Malcolm X for the French-speaking world. Or, more precisely, the caricature to which Malcolm X, like so many Black revolutionaries, has been reduced.

Fanon was born in 1925, a product of the colonial system. The first three words he learned to write were “I am French,” and when Martinique fell under Vichy tyranny, he escaped the island to serve in the Free French Forces; he was wounded in battle in France and won a Croix de Guerre medal.

But Fanon’s wartime experience stripped him of any illusions about the colonial motherland. Although he was considered an honorary European, like other West Indians in the resistance army, Africans and Arabs were treated as inferiors. Fanon responded to these early, harrowing experiences of racism by exalting his Black identity, before rejecting racial ideology in favor of a radical anti-imperialism.

Fanon was a child of the empire, who fought for France in World War II and then turned against it in Algeria, a secular West Indian in a Muslim-led liberation movement, a dashing and sophisticated intellectual who earned the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — he had a life story as cinematic as Malcolm X’s. He also had a flair for provocative rhetoric, enriched by the cadences of the West Indian poetry he’d read as a young man. Fanon wrote some of the most memorable slogans of the national liberation struggles of the 1960s: “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World”; “the colonized liberates himself in and through violence”; “Come, comrades, the European game is finally over, we must look for something else.” But if these slogans have burnished his contemporary aura (and made him a favorite of French rappers), they have also lent themselves — like “the ballot or the bullet” in Malcolm X’s case — to an oversimplified understanding of his life and legacy.

Fanon, not merely a gifted propagandist, was both a champion of decolonization and one of its most incisive analysts. He was, to be sure, a proponent of armed struggle by the colonized. But the colonial system, he emphasized, was itself founded on violent and sometimes genocidal acts of dispossession and repression. The violence of the colonized was a counter-violence; it did not grow out of a void. As a psychiatrist, Fanon believed that armed struggle had therapeutic benefits, allowing the colonized to overcome the stupor, the paralyzing sense of hopelessness, induced by colonial subjugation, and to become masters of their own fate.

Yet Fanon did not regard all forms of anticolonial violence as equally legitimate: He criticized Algerian rebels who had committed atrocities with “the almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression nourish and give rise to.” And in the last chapter of “The Wretched of the Earth,” titled “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” a series of haunting case studies about what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Fanon predicted that the “psycho-affective” effects of both colonial and anticolonial violence would weigh heavily on Algeria’s future. The soldier saw the gun as a necessary midwife of anticolonial history; the healer dreaded inner wars to come.

His views about Algeria’s European settler community were more textured than his admirers and detractors would have us believe — or than those expressed by Sartre in his incendiary preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” which celebrated the murder of European civilians as anticolonial justice. As a psychiatrist, Fanon had no trouble grasping the desire for revenge among victims of colonial oppression. The colonized, he wrote, was a “persecuted man who constantly dreams of becoming the persecutor.” Nonetheless, he insisted that the anticolonial movement would have to reject the “primitive Manichaeism of the colonizer — Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel.” Some members of the colonized community, he noted, “can be whiter than the whites,” while some whites could “prove to be closer, infinitely closer, to the nationalist struggle than certain native sons.”

While the principal aim of Algeria’s struggle was to free the country from French domination, he argued that the F.L.N. should open its arms to anyone who embraced it, including Europeans of conscience. The identities of “settler” and “native” were not fixed, essential identities; they were identities created by colonialism itself and would disappear with colonialism. After independence, the colonized would discover “the man behind the colonizer” — and vice versa. “Hatred,” he wrote, “cannot constitute a program.”

The reality was less attractive. Only a tiny number of Europeans joined the independence struggle; most supported France’s continued rule, and considered the French Army’s brutal repression — including the forced relocation of two million Algerian villagers, widespread torture, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians — to be a necessary war against “terrorism.” This greatly diminished the prospects for Muslim-European coexistence in an independent Algeria. And, as Fanon discovered while serving as an F.L.N. spokesman in Tunisia, his progressive allies in the movement were a minority, outnumbered and outgunned by Arab nationalists and Islamic populists of a more authoritarian streak.

Even as he witnessed intolerance and violent score settling in the F.L.N., he remained a good soldier, echoing the official line. But in “The Wretched of the Earth,” he expressed his concerns that the impending liberation of Algeria and the African continent would not lead to true freedom for the oppressed, since an avaricious and corrupt “national bourgeoisie” stood in the way of a more sweeping social revolution. In his writing and in his work as a psychiatrist, Fanon advanced a rebellious vision of what he called “disalienation” — a commitment to collective and individual freedom that was in some ways a challenge to his own adopted cause. It is no wonder that he has found an admiring audience among young intellectuals in contemporary Algeria, who find themselves suffocated by their authoritarian regime, the “pouvoir,” the opaque power that still controls the country.

Although a revolutionary and a radical, Fanon was averse to the kind of identity-based politics for which he is often enlisted today. For all that he anatomized the destructive effects of racism on the psyches of the colonized, he considered projects of cultural reclamation to be inherently conservative and dismissed the idea of race itself. “The Negro is not,” he wrote. “No more than the White man.” While he acknowledged the role that Islam had played in mobilizing Algerian Muslims against French rule, he warned that it threatened to “reanimate the sectarian and religious spirit,” separating the anticolonial struggle from “its ideal future, in order to reconnect it with its past.” For Fanon, what ultimately counted was the “leap of invention,” which, for him, was inextricably linked with the leap into freedom.

Today, the idea of leaping beyond race, ethnicity or religion seems fantastical, and for some not even desirable. But Fanon believed that the prison houses of race and colonialism, in which millions of men and women had been confined, were made by human beings, and could therefore be unmade by them. No one evoked the dream world of race and colonialism — the ways in which oppression burrowed its way into people’s psyches — with such bleak force as Fanon. It’s an important reason he’s so popular today. But Fanon was also, paradoxically, and in decided contrast to many of today’s radical thinkers and activists, an optimist.

For the victims of slavery and colonialism, history had been cruel, but it was not, in his view, an inescapable destiny: “I am not a slave to the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors,” he declared in “Black Skin, White Masks,” adding for good measure that the “density of history determines none of my acts.” He placed his faith in humanity’s capacity for rebirth and innovation and in the possibility of new departures in history: what Arendt called “natality.”

As he bade farewell to Europe in the closing pages of “The Wretched of the Earth,” he dreamed of a new humanity, emancipated from colonialism and empire: “No, we do not want to catch up with anyone. What we want is to move forward all the time, night and day, in the company of man, all men.” It is Fanon’s insistence on the struggle for freedom and dignity in the face of oppression, his belief that one day “the last shall be first,” that imbues his writing with its stirring force.

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