Hicham Yezza, Ceasefire Magazine
Fifty years ago today, on December 6, 1961, Frantz Fanon –
Martinique-born and “Algerien par choix”, medical doctor and
psychiatrist, celebrated author and rebel journalist, WW2 veteran and
war hero, diplomat and revolutionary – died of Leukaemia in a New York
hospital. He was 35 years old.
Six days later, on December 12, a detachment of the ALN, the Algerian
National Liberation Army, paid full military honours at his funeral on
liberated Algerian territory near the Tunisian border, his final resting
place. Six months later, on July 5, 1962, the independent Democratic
and Popular Republic of Algeria, the cause to which he dedicated half
his active life, was born.
In the fifty years since his death, a lot has happened and yet, in a
number of important ways, little has changed. Fanon’s life, from his
earliest incursions into revolutionary struggle as a teenager, to the
last months of his life, mostly spent lying in bed, dictating, with
furious urgency, his last work, The Wretched of the Earth, is astonishing in its arc, as if invented out of sheer will, which of course it was.
Two questions present themselves: What does Fanon mean to us today?
Or, more incredibly, should he mean anything in the first place?
To the first question, the answer is: not enough. Fanon, like most
cumbersome saints, whose actual words and actions are a lot harder to
live up to than our notions of them, has morphed into a plasticine
statue: venerated from afar, invoked in passing, enlisted in whatever
the battle of the moment is, but never allowed to speak (itself a deep
irony, which those who have read him will feel with especial pain).
Although commemorative events did take place this year in Algiers and a
few other places, with a new edition of his complete works being
released, he remains, in the year of Arab uprisings and Occupy, absurdly
absent from our global conversation.
Some people do still read him of course, though in dwindling numbers
and for increasingly epistemological purposes, but most mentions of him
these days seem to be either from those who, as Edward Said put it,
enjoy “rereading Fanon but trashing him at the same time” (Sidney Hook’s
attacks in the 80s a case in point) or those who simply use Fanon’s
name as mere punctuation, to pause for breath between Aimé Césaire and
To the second question, the answer is a resounding yes. With four
slender volumes, published within less than a decade, Fanon has utterly
transformed the debate on race, colonialism, imperialism, otherness, and
what it means for one human being to oppress another. Some of his
positions might seem rather obvious to those who come to him today
heaving under hefty Post-Colonial studies baggage, as if what he had to
say is what everyone ought to know. But to quote Eagleton’s apt phrase
on Stuart Hall, “if he had the air of a camp-follower, he had usually
pitched a fair bit of the camp himself”.
Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks,
a masterpiece of condensed critical scrutiny and controlled anger, was a
focused attempt, through a “psychoanalytic unpacking of the colonized
mind” (in Hamid Dabashi’s phrase) to dig deepest into the sources of the
White-Black question, or as Fanon put it “le problème noir”. To say the
book has retained its relevance would be platitudinous as well as
inaccurate: its relevance has, if anything, been sharpened by a half
century of betrayals of the decolonization struggle.
Fanon did not live to see Algeria become independent, but as Said
repeatedly noted, that might have been a blessing. Seeing revolutionary
comrades turn into a Bourgeoisie of state functionaries would have
certainly been hard viewing for someone so dedicated to the emancipation
of the paysannerie, of The Wretched of the Earth.
Of course, the betrayals continue today. In Brown Skin, White Masks,
his brilliant homage to, and updating of, Fanon’s analysis, Dabashi
draws a damning portrait of the parallels between the ‘native informers’
denounced by Fanon, notably in his second chapter’s comprehensive
demolition of Capecia’s I am a Martinican Woman, and current incarnations, such as Azar Nafizi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Hirsi Ali’s Infidel.
There isn’t, and will never be, enough space to do justice to how
devastatingly compelling Fanon’s message was. But it would be remiss of
me not to mention what I feel are two particularly neglected zones of
shade. First, Fanon was as true an embodiment of l’intellectuel engagé as
you’re likely to get. His involvement in revolutionary struggle wasn’t
of the touristic kind, which mediocrities like Bernard Henri-Levy have
come to epitomise; he was neck-deep in operational matters within the
FLN, at great risk to himself.
Secondly, Fanon’s intellectual approach was of extreme seriousness.
One only needs to pay attention to how meticulous he was in reading
others. Only someone with an extraordinary commitment to intellectual
rigour could have turned György Lukács’ ‘Subject-Master’ dichotomy
against itself, demonstrating, with incisive brilliance, that what
Lukács intended as a space for reconciliation was, in fact, a time-bomb:
the master-subject relation transposed by Fanon into the settler-native
context was simply unsustainable. As he cautioned in his introduction
to BSWM “the explosion won’t take place today. It is too early… or
perhaps too late”.
Moreover, working with Rabemananjara, Richard Wright, Marcelino Dos
Santos, Cheikh Anta Diop as well as Senghor and Césaire, he traced a
path for a humanist Pan-Africanism that must be restored. His most
famous work, the Wretched of the Earth, still retains the
rawness and vivid sense of urgency that must have kept him going
throughout those last months of his life. People tend to focus on the
first chapter, “On Violence”, and many have done so to attack him based
on a vulgar (in Marx’s sense of the word) reading of his words. But I’ve
always found the second chapter, on how liberation movements can go
wrong, the most fascinating. Fanon seems to have that gift, common to
all truly original minds, of being able to spot the iceberg from the
merest glimpse of its tip.
Of course, like all truly dangerous thinkers, Fanon continues to
receive his fair share of spurious attacks and hatchet jobs. As to
serious, well intentioned criticism, most of it seems to me to be based
either on misreadings of him (Sydney Hook) or partial ones (notably
Ashis Nandy’s in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias).
Throughout his work, Fanon makes an unanswerable case for the notion
of historical change by which the “oppressed classes are capable of
liberating themselves from their oppressors” (Said). Again, this might
seem rather obvious from the vantage point of post-9/11 politics, but
people would do well to revisit the historical record. Sixty years ago,
most liberation movements had started as heresies, rather than the
certainties-in-waiting they have become in hindsight.
Fanon should not only be on everyone’s reading list but especially on
their re-reading one too. His words, tinged with sadness, resolve,
indignation and generosity are, above all, those of a supremely gifted
mind and a principled man of action. Although he never got the
opportunity to develop his theories into a full-blown framework (he had
little to say about the economics of colonisation, for instance), he has
left us, in his books and trenchant wartime journalism, a body of
critical insights that will continue to inspire millions of
revolutionaries and world-changers, all moved by that poetically
reflective cry that concludes Black Skin, White Masks: “Oh my body! Make me someone who always enquires!”
Frantz Fanon was the author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959), L’An V de la révolution algérienne (1959), The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Towards African Revolution (1964). The Fanon Reader was published by Pluto Press in 2006.