Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Frantz Fanon and the global African worker

by Bill Fletcher, Pambazuka

It has been more than 30 years since I last read Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,’ (hereafter referred to as ‘Pitfalls’) contained in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. It had been so long, in fact, that when I opened my paperback copy of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, the pages started to come out. That said, the essay read as if from just yesterday with warnings that it turned out were very prescient, including and ironically, with regard to his beloved Algeria.

Fanon’s ‘Pitfalls’ is an intense, biting and analytical critique of the national bourgeoisie (and segments of the pro-nationalist petty bourgeoisie) in oppressed nations. It warns of the role of this class in the post-independence environment and specifically that it is bound to betray the national project, not to mention the Pan-African project, in the interests of its own class ambitions. The essay then turns to recommendations as to the approach that revolutionary forces in the oppressed nations and formerly oppressed nations should take with regard to moving a process of fundamental social transformation. In this regard he upholds positive lessons that he saw unfolding in the Algerian Revolution (a national liberations struggle which would result in Algeria’s independence from France in the year following Fanon’s premature death).

There are many important observations one can make concerning Fanon’s essay, including noting his recognition of the dangers of tribalism, regionalism and religious conflict, all of which have emerged in post-independence societies. Yet for purposes of this commentary what was enlightening were Fanon’s observations of the national bourgeoisie’s betrayal and abandonment of the national project all the while they were holding high the banner of the national liberation. Using the rhetoric of the national liberation struggle, the national bourgeoisie and its political representatives have de-mobilised the populace and created structures that repress rather than liberate. Fanon describes how, given this scenario, so much ends up revolving around the ‘great leader’ rather than around the masses that carried out the national liberation process. Regardless of rhetoric, then, these national bourgeois forces suppress domestic social movements while making the best deals that they can with imperialism. Unfortunately, and contrary to Fanon’s hopes and expectations, the great Algerian Revolution fell prey to such a course despite the uniqueness of the organisation and struggle carried out by Algerian national liberation fighters.

Most national liberation and independence movements contained within them a flaw, which was not necessarily apparent to outside observers, and to some extent remains hidden or ignored by many today. In the face of an obvious social contradiction between the people of the oppressed nations on the one hand and the forces of imperialism and colonialism on the other, a series of internal contradictions within the oppressed nations have often been subordinated, all in the name of national unity. Such internal contradictions have ranged from ethnicity to region to gender to class. In each case, in the name of national liberation these contradictions or challenges were either ignored or placed on the ‘back burner’ to be resolved at some later moment. This phenomenon was not reserved for national liberation struggles in Africa or the global South. In the African American freedom struggle this played itself out as well, often with similar negative consequences.

The downplaying of so-called secondary contradictions (secondary only in the sense that at a particular moment the principal contradiction was between the people of the oppressed nation and the imperial/colonial opponent, e.g. Algeria vs. France pre-1962) has often been attributed to matters of will or, in some cases, to a bad political line. In the case of Algeria, for instance, the argument might be raised by some that the Front de Liberation National (FLN, the leading force in the struggle against France and subsequently the ruling political party) erred in not addressing the struggles of the workers or of women, etc. While this may be objectively true, what such an approach misses is the class content behind certain decisions. In other words, yes, there was an ‘error’ committed, but only from the standpoint of the oppressed. From the standpoint of the national bourgeoisie, however, there was a course of action being followed in order to help it consolidate its hold on the national movement and the post-colonial state.

Fanon’s ‘Pitfalls’ helps to provide a framework, even 50 years after his death, for understanding this challenge. By grappling with the class forces that are engaged in shaping the process of a national project, one can come to understand precisely why appeals for an alternative direction so often fall on deaf ears. This was the case with Algeria and I would argue has also been the case of Zimbabwe under the increasingly repressive President Robert Mugabe. Dazzled as many foreign and domestic observers have been with various national liberation processes and the rhetoric associated with them, there has often been an assumption that the leading forces in these project are operating on revolutionary principles. We have to recognise, standing with Fanon, that this may simply not be the case. That, in fact, they may be operating in the interest of a non-revolutionary class or class fraction in order to advance their own personal and/or class interests.

With this in mind it then becomes all the more important that independent social movements exist, are recognised and permitted to operate freely in the course of any transformative project. With regard to working people, there has been a routine in too many national liberation processes by which workers are encouraged to form labour unions (or other worker organisations) that are then subordinated to the national liberation front or party, or post-independence ruling authority. Subordination does not mean simply playing a lesser role in the overall political hierarchy, but also means that workers’ organisations are controlled, directly or indirectly, by the ruling political party. Such an existence objectively aims at stifling, if not ignoring, the existence of class struggle. It is as if the new ruling elite believe that by subordinating the unions that class struggle ceases and the workers are kept in place. Instead what comes into existence is a different sort of class state; in this case one representing the aspiration of a rising national bourgeoisie (or in some cases petty bourgeoisie) that seeks to shape the national freedom/liberation project in a manner that advances said aspirations. In either case, the class struggle has not disappeared, only changed form.

Fanon emphasises, in ‘Pitfalls’, the necessity for a genuine revolutionary party linked with the masses as the antidote to this process of national corruption that unfolds when the national bourgeoisie is hegemonic. While it would be difficult to disagree with such a suggestion, it is, with all due respect, insufficient, a point which should be apparent in reviewing the history of revolutionary struggles over the last century. This is the case for at least two reasons.

First, parties cannot substitute for all social forces. Workers, for instance, need their own organisations. Such organisations must be broad and democratic. They must be a means of fighting for social and economic justice, inside and outside the context of a national democratic context. And that fight must involve a struggle to guarantee that workers are centrally involved in leading the national democratic/revolutionary process. In other words, that there are institutions that are created that advance worker control, not only over their immediate work process but also in society as a whole.

Second, it is often within genuinely revolutionary parties that the seeds of regression may be found. Particularly in societies that have had a single, leading party, class struggle and other struggles will take place within that leading party, as well as in the broader society. Irrespective of whether there is a single-party state, the outcome of internal struggles within a revolutionary party is not predetermined. Thus, the best political line and the best leaders are not enough to guarantee that the movement will stay the course. A democratic reality to the process of social transformation plus the existence of viable, progressive social movements is every bit as important.

Fanon’s observations are compelling and frightening in their accuracy regarding the challenges that have faced countless national democratic and freedom movements. In that sense, this essay should remain required reading for all freedom fighters not simply to understand how national populist and national democratic processes have so often disintegrated, but in order to serve as a jumping off point for a 21st century radical transformative project rooted among workers and other oppressed sectors. Or, to borrow from Fanon’s own words: ‘The colonized man [or woman—BF] who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope.’[1]

* Bill Fletcher, Jr is a long-time racial justice, labour and international activist and writer. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, Visiting Scholar with the City University of New York Graduate Center, editorial board member of, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He is the co-author of Solidarity Divided.