The World Social Forum in Kenya earlier this year was marked by a resurgence of interest in the ideas of Frantz Fanon, a thinker whose works have for many years been neglected.
Fanon was a North African writer and psychiatrist who became famous in the 1960s for his radical critique of colonial racism and its impact on colonised people.
His devastating description of how racism destroyed people, not only physically, but also in terms of their mental and emotional lives, inspired leaders of the Black Power movement in US.
But Fanon’s name was also inseparable from his most controversial and uncompromising stance – his defence of the right of colonised people to use violence in their fight for liberation.
Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique, growing up under the French colonial regime that still rules there. He joined the French army to fight fascism during the Second World War – a journey that took him to Algeria and on to France. He subsequently went on to train as a psychiatrist in the French city of Lyon.
These times were Fanon’s first experience of racism and what it felt like to be a black man living in white society. His first book, Black Skin White Masks, was published in French in 1952.
This was two years before the defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu, the battle which routed the French in Vietnam. It was four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in the segregated South of the US – an action that triggered the movement for black liberation in the US, which Fanon would have a profound influence on.
But in 1952 anti-colonial struggles were in their infancy. Racist ideas permeated all levels of society in Europe as well as the colonies controlled by the British, French and Portuguese. Colour bars operated openly in all areas of life – including housing, jobs and entertainment.
Black people were supposed to “prove themselves” by assimilating into the white world of the colonisers. They were expected to try to “become white” by forgetting their own language, traditions, cultures and ways of life.
This was a world where the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni was considered a liberal despite arguing that the native population willed the colonisation of Madagascar by the French because they suffered from a “dependency complex”.
Fanon’s searing reply to Mannoni in Black Skin White Masks pinpoints the racism of European colonial societies as the cause of the problems faced by natives. It illustrates how Fanon set out to root the mental illnesses faced by his patients in their real life experiences.
Committed to developing his work as a psychiatrist, Fanon arrived to take up a post at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria in September 1953. He developed his distinctive approach to treating the mentally ill that rejected the pervasive racist views of a specific “Arab mentality”.
A year after Fanon arrived in Algeria, the national liberation struggle exploded. Fanon came into contact with the FLN, the Algerian independence movement, and gradually became more fully involved in the struggle.
He supplied essential equipment to the FLN, safe havens for militants on the run, as well as psychiatric treatment for the tortured and the torturers alike. Fanon quickly came to be seen as a foreign representative for the FLN at conferences abroad.
By 1957 Fanon was receiving regular death threats, making his work in Algeria unsafe. He left for France before travelling secretly to Tunisia. In his resignation letter, he described his experiences of colonial Algeria:
“If psychiatry is a medical technique which aspires to allow man to cease being alienated from his environment, I owe it to myself to assert that the Arab, who is permanently alienated in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation. The status of Algeria? Systematic dehumanisation.”
Fanon’s next book, A Dying Colonialism, was a fascinating portrait of the impact the liberation movement had on all those involved in it.
He described how Algerian women fighters would put the veil on or take it off according to the needs of the liberation movement – if it was easier to pass the checkpoints dressed as a European then the veil would disappear. He also records out how the determination of colonial authorities to “liberate” Muslim women from the veil directly inspired more women to wear it.
Fanon also noted how relationships within the family underwent substantial changes as young men and women joined the resistance.
Fathers were no longer accorded automatic authority, since the needs of the liberation movement prevailed. Couples began to find a new equality as they shared a common goal in the liberation of their country.
But the ideas which came to be synonymous with Fanon were those set down in The Wretched Of The Earth. This was his final book, published after his death from leukaemia in December 1961, only months before Algerian independence was declared.
Dictated rather than written, this volume contains Fanon’s views on violence, the role of the peasantry in the liberation struggle, and his fears for what might happen after independence.
Fanon had a vision of how ordinary people could create a new world by overthrowing the old colonial order. He saw the struggle itself as a means for transforming human relationships and forging a new humanity.
Colonisation was a violent process that destroyed old ways of life and robbed the colonised of their means to live with dignity. Fanon argued against those who believed in limiting struggle to non-violent protest. A violent colonial power could only be broken by violent means, he said.
Fanon rightly understood that the French and British empires had taken land and resources by military conquest, and would only give these up when forced to do so. Algeria’s bitter independence struggle was proof of that analysis.
However, other aspects of Fanon’s views on violence are more problematic. He believed violence could act as a kind of cement, creating solidarity amongst different tribes, overcoming hierarchies and binding people to the liberation movement.
This idea that there was some kind of redemptive quality to violence would have a profound impact on the developing Black Power movement in the US. Radical black activists such as Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver were looking to counter the prevailing pacifist views of the civil rights movement.
Fanon’s ideas were a means to do this – but they also appeared to provide an alternative path to revolution that would bypass the bulk of working people in Europe and the US.
Many radicals during the late 1960s wrote off such groups of workers, believing they had been “bought off” by high wages and apparent job security in the post-war world.
Fanon’s views encouraged a deepening of the revolt against imperialism – but also pointed people away from workers and towards the dispossessed and the peasantry. This direction contrasted sharply with the views of Karl Marx, who saw workers as the crucial force that could draw together and lead the struggle for change.
Moreover, Marx argued that debate, solidarity and democracy were an essential part of any successful revolutionary movement. Violence was unavoidable – but only as a tool of the mass workers’ movement itself, not as a tactic in the hands of a separate guerrilla force.
Just before his death, Fanon became concerned with what independence might look like in the former colonies. He was familiar with developments in anti-colonial movements throughout Africa through his work for the FLN.
Fanon worried that independence could see a new capitalist class emerging in the liberated nations. This, he argued, would lead to a range of religious and ethnic rivalries as the new rulers hastened to gain from the departing colonists – a prediction that sadly proved to be correct.
Those who struggle against imperialism today have much in common with Fanon. We share his profound anger at how imperialism destroys every aspect of people’s lives.
We share his humanist vision of self-transformation – of men and women creating a new way of life free from racism and all forms of bigotry.
We believe, like he did, in standing shoulder to shoulder with the wretched of the earth. But we would also argue that the working class people who marched against the Iraq war in cities across the globe – such as London, Cairo, Cape Town and São Paulo – are the key to building the international solidarity needed to fight for and win our vision of a new and better world.
A selection of Frantz Fanon’s writings on Africa can be found online at www.marxists.org/subject/africa/fanon
Fanon’s books Black Skin White Masks and The Wretched Of The Earth are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848, www.bookmarks.uk.com