Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Living Fanon: The rationality of revolt

by Nigel Gibson, Pambazuka

What better way to celebrate, commemorate and critically reflect on the fiftieth year of Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’[1] than with a new North African syndrome: revolution - or at least a series of revolts and resistance across the region. Fanon begins The Wretched writing of decolonisation as a program of complete disorder, an overturning of order - often against the odds - willed collectively from the bottom up. Without time or space for a transition, there is an absolute replacement of one ‘species’ by another (1968:35). In a period of radical chance such absolutes appear quite normal, when, in spite of everything thrown against it, ideas jump across frontiers and people begin again ‘to make history (1968: 69-71). In short, once the mind of the oppressed experiences freedom in and through collective actions, its reason becomes a force of revolution. As the Egyptians said of January 25th: ‘When we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. We will not again allow ourselves to be scared of a government. This is the revolution in our country, the revolution in our minds.’[2]

And yet, as the revolts inevitably face new repression and counter-revolution, elite compromises and imperial manoeuvrings, Fanonian questions - echoed across the postcolonial world - become more and more timely. How can the revolution hold onto its epistemological moment, the rationality of revolt? And yet this is exactly what happened on 20 November 2011 as thousands of Egyptians responded to the violent eviction of demonstrators from Tahrir Square by taking it back, vowing to stay until the military left politics and opening up a second act of the Egyptian revolution: ‘We want freedom,’ they said. ‘We will not allow the military to hijack the revolution.’


What is Fanonian practice? In a word, revolvolution (using Aimé Césaire’s neologism) or a cycle of cycles. On one hand, it is constant return. ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (published in 1952) expresses this as a frustration, a cry of weeping and petrification. The dialectic is blocked and there seems to be no way out. But Fanon begins the conclusion with a quote from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire that the new revolution - the decolonial revolution - will have to leave Europe to let the dead bury the dead.

In ‘Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution’ published in 1959[3] the anticolonial revolution, specifically the Algerian - to which Fanon had committed - holds an answer. Fanon writes about a radical change in consciousness that individuals undergo as they use all their collective resources to transform society and themselves. Yet ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (published in 1961) tells another story. In contrast to the opening up of space detailed in ‘Year 5’, the dialectic of ‘The Wretched’ details the suffocation of politics. Reminding us of the spatial experiences of oppression in ‘Black Skin’, now, after independence, the spaces for politics are quickly closed down. The cycle continues.

If the insurrectionary mobilisations of the rural and urban ‘damned of the earth’ become the epistemological dividing line on which ‘The Wretched’ is grounded, the second dividing line is described by Fanon as a time lag between the leaders of the nationalist party and the mass of the people (1968:107). This time lag is in effect an epistemological division between what Fanon calls the ‘rationality of revolt’ (1968:146) and the (lazy) instrumental or simply cunning rationalism of the nationalist leaders and intellectuals.

It turns out that the maturity of the decolonising political struggle is in stark contrast to the immaturity and premature senility of the national bourgeoisie. The masses begin to ask ‘was independence worth fighting for’ (1968:75) and the leaders, who simply appear at election times to wave struggle flags, are truly surprised that the people are so discontented. Fanon argues that the lack of practical links (1968:46), the distance - temporal and especially spatial (and also in mindsets) - between them and the mass of people means that they have no idea of what the people think or feel. But the nationalist leaders and national bourgeoisie who are often seduced by a ‘cosmopolitan’ mentality (1968:149) do not adjust their thinking. Substituting themselves for the nation, nationalism becomes defined by exclusion, often taking a xenophobic, religious, or ethnic form, and by socially conservative notions of culture - often heralding patriarchies and women’s submission -as political means to control dissent. While the cynics and opportunists see the neo-colonial state as a personal money bag, even the honest politician still believes what the colonial system has ingrained into their heads, that the mass of poor people are backward and need ‘enlightened’ dictatorship. The party simply creates a screen reinforcing its centralised hierarchical and authoritarian form and practices, which Fanon argues creates a type of dictatorship, often in military fatigues. It is the perfect form for an arrogant and unscrupulous bourgeoisie (1968:165), Fanon says, which sees the state as simply the prize to be taken and its oppressive apparatus to be wielded against anyone who challenges it. The party aided by the police becomes the means to hem in and immobilise the people. This is the story of Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’, repeated across the African continent.

And yet the struggle continues. The masses implicitly understand what has happened because it is their daily reality.

At a seminar that I attended on Fanon with members of the shack dwellers organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo and the rural network in Pietmaritzburg, South Africa in May 2011, Ntombifuthi Shandu from the latter organisation wondered whether ‘we are led by people who were damaged by the struggle during apartheid’; that is by brutalised people who act brutally against the people. I found this comment particularly insightful. Concerned about brutality and the building up of another system of exploitation at the very moment when we destroy the old one, Fanon’s case notes in ‘The Wretched’ focussed on the traumas and stresses on the psyche that the struggle for liberation creates. Indeed, at one level the corruption and crude materialism can be understood as a reaction formation to the internalisation of this brutality often reduced to the standpoint of the gun. Shandu’s point was also concrete and specific, perhaps referring to the violence in the rural areas of Natal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was reminiscent of Fanon’s thesis that hatred, resentment and revenge, feelings often encouraged during the struggle to create action, cannot sustain liberation. In contrast, he insists that the work of the rebellion is to uncover its own thinking and reason in defiance of the brutality that is manifested by those ‘who tend to think that shades of meaning constitute danger’. Indeed he suggests that the logic of the militant’s voluntarism to get thing done, to take short cuts and to force action, is shockingly ‘inhuman and in the long run sterile’ (199). In contrast, Fanon argues that the search for truth in the locale is the responsibility of the conscious and coordinated praxis of the local community.

Fanon warns in ‘The Wretched’ that all progressive organisations, parties and social movements can degenerate. Just as organisations of national liberation can become chauvinistic, democratic movements can become professionalised and authoritarian. The transformation into its opposite is, however, neither an iron law nor simply the result of external pressure. In fact, inasmuch as Fanon believes that it is the subjective powers - namely, the hands and brains - of Africans that will create new beginnings on the continent, Fanon’s politics insists on absolute vigilance and checking practice by principle. The achievements of liberation movements become part of the struggle’s history; they are never lost, even if the movements later degenerate.

Vigilance is made more difficult, Fanon argues, because there is no independently truthful behaviour. Instead there is a veracity produced by the situation: the poor, the unemployed, the excluded, in short the damned of the earth, are ‘the truth’ (1968: 49-50) because they express the truth of the ‘national cause’, namely promised land, promised bread and promised freedom. This claim has been a cause of some concern among some critics, dismissed as essentialist. Yet the problem is that moving from substantive truth is never guaranteed and requires human action. When Fanon adds, ‘we have every right to ask ourselves whether this truth is reality’ (1968: 225), he demands political commitment.

Rather than as a directive, truth is a collective and open political endeavour and like Fanon’s concept of political education, it emerges with political subjectivity through careful relationships, trials, and mishaps, aware as Marx put it in the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ of the ‘inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts’.

Fanon, the revolutionary, looks to continuing the work, the deepening cycle - wary of the blind alleys, the intellectual laziness and arrogance, and ideological failings of the first iterations; regional and local threats, not only that politics and political organisation be decentralised, but that radically different notions of time be developed; time to deepen, democratise and make clear the relationships between militants and the mass movements; time to discuss with the people, who have long been told to be silent, as they become the decision makers. Without that fundamental temporal change, ‘development’, whether called capitalist or socialist, is just technical and hierarchical. The necessity to decentralise politics, to encourage grassroots democracy and to make discussion and decision making absolutely open is the task of being a protagonist and the intellectual can only do so through a fundamental shift in hearing inside the ‘school of the people’.

Thus when Fanon calls on those ‘comrades’ who have embraced decolonisation to ‘work out new concepts’ (1968: 316) and take the ‘rationality of revolt’ (1968: 146) as the point of departure, a wholly different attitude to praxis is required, one that begins from a new conception of time: time is the yardstick, the space of human development. Time must be found to explain and struggle against the spirit of discouragement and against an uncritical developmentalism; he insists that the time supposedly lost treating a worker like a human being will be gained by rethinking everything from the ground up.


My focus on ‘Fanonian Practices’ in South Africa begins with Biko’s engagement with Fanon. It is an engagement made possible by the two-way road of revolutionary ideas between Black USA and the imminent Black Consciousness movement in South Africa at a moment (1968) when ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ had become the ‘bible of the Black revolution’ (and gestures to the importance of American Black struggle to Fanon’s afterlife since it was through the Black Freedom movements in the United States, not through France or Algeria, that Fanon’s stature as a revolutionary thinker became internationally recognised[4]). James Cone’s Black theology provided the first point of contact around the same time that George Jackson was shot and killed in the hellhole of San Quentin maximum security prison in California. In George Jackson, Fanon found a militant intellectual. In Fanon, Jackson found a source of revolutionary hope for ‘a new form of political activity which in no way resembles the old’.[5]

New forms of political activity are becoming more apparent and concrete expressions of the idea of freedom (just as we witness, the self-organisation of Tahrir Square). And so too with the struggles against unfreedom in post-apartheid South Africa. Fanon argues in ‘The Wretched’ that at a certain moment the people realise that the new nation has not brought freedom at all. Their lives have not improved, land has not been redistributed, work has not become humanised, cities have not become open to all and the despotism in the rural areas has not ended. And they begin to understand the social treason of the huckster politicians. Fanon provides the method to subject post-apartheid South Africa to a test. One Fanonian praxis is the thinking of the shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, which puts South Africa’s ‘Freedom Day’ (April 27) on trial by organising ‘Unfreedom Day’, asking the concrete and philosophical question, ‘Are we free?’ and adding, in contrast to the flattening discourse of ‘service delivery’, that ‘delivering houses will do away with the lack of houses but it won't make us free’.

‘Fanon believed that everyone could think,’ S’bu Zikode, the former president of Abahlali, wrote in his foreword to ‘Fanonian Practices’.[6] ‘He believed that the role of the university-trained intellectual was to be inside the struggles of the people and to be inside the discussions inside the struggles of the people.’ Abahlali did not know of Fanon when they first organised, and why should they? The question was: how would Fanon speak to their struggle? In ‘Fanonian Practices’ Zikode replies, ‘There is no doubt that Fanon would have recognised the shack intellectuals in our movement. He would have discussed and debated with us as equals. Fanon believed that democracy was the rule of the people and not the rule of experts. He did not think that democracy was just about voting every five years. He saw it as a daily practice of the people.’

What is interesting about Abahlali now, six years after its self-organisation, is its thinking born of experience and discussion. They call it living learning. Press statements are written collectively; quite in contrast to technical education, learning is a collective and living thing that always needs to be nurtured. Their idea of ‘citizenship’ (including all who live in the shacks in democratic decision making regardless of ancestry, ethnicity, gender, age etc.) connects with Fanon’s political notion of citizenship formed in the social struggle (of everyone who wants to play a part in the creation of the new nation, as he puts it in ‘Year 5’), in which he includes himself in that ‘we’ construction: ‘We want an Algeria open to all, in which every kind of genius may grow.[7] The shack dwellers, in other words, have given meaning and a new concreteness to Fanon’s critique of national consciousness that remains important today, arguing that it is either deepened into a humanism - a consciousness of political and social awareness (from the needs of the people from the ground up) - or it degenerates into a narrow nationalism based on claims of indigeneity and chauvinism. The former is based on a politics structured by the rationality of revolt, while the latter is encouraged by colonialism and remains one of its enduring and destructive legacies.