by Achille Mbembe, Africa is a Country
Fifty years ago, Frantz Fanon passed away leaving us with his last testimony, The Wretched of the Earth.
Written in the crucible of the Algerian war of independence and the
early years of Third World decolonization, this book achieved an almost
biblical status. It became a living source of inspiration for those who
opposed the Vietnam War, marched with the civil rights movement,
supported revolutionary black struggles in America, the struggle against
Apartheid in South Africa and countless insurgent movements around the
Fanon’s life had led him far away from the island of Martinique in
the Caribbean where he was born a French citizen. He took part at the
age of nineteen in the war against Nazism only to discover that in the
eyes of France he was nothing but a “Negro”, that is, anything but a man
like any other man.
By any means necessary
He would end up feeling a deep sense of betrayal. Black Skin, White Mask – his first book – partly relates the story of this and many other fraught encounters with colonial forms of dehumanization.
But it was in Algeria where he worked as a psychiatrist that Fanon
finally cut the cord that bound him to France. The country for which he
had almost lost his life in the struggle against Hitler had started to
replicate Nazi’s methods during a savage and nameless war against a
people which it denied the right to self-determination.
About this war Fanon often said it had taken the look of an authentic
genocide. Having sided with the Algerian people, France disowned him.
He had betrayed the nation. He became an enemy and long after his death,
France treated him as such.
For those committed to the cause of oppressed people or fighting for
racial justice, his name nevertheless remained not only a sign of hope,
but also an injunction to rise up. Indeed to Fanon we owe the idea that
in every human being there is something indomitable which no domination –
no matter in what form – can eliminate, contain nor suppress, or at
Fanon tried to grasp how this “something” could be reanimated and brought back to life under conditions of subjugation.
He argued that this irrepressible and relentless pursuit of freedom
required the mobilization of all life reserves. It drew the human
subject into a fight to the death – a fight he was called upon to assume
as his own task, one he could not delegate to others.
Fanon was also convinced that colonialism was a force animated at its core by a genocidal drive.
To destroy colonialism could only be ensured by violent means, an
“absolute praxis” whose goal was to produce life and to free the world
from the burden of race.
Post-liberation culture and politics
His diagnosis of life after colonialism was uncompromising.
For him, there was a distinct possibility that post-liberation
culture and politics might take the road of retrogression if not
tragedy. The project of national liberation might turn into a crude,
empty shell; the nation might be passed over for the race, and the tribe
might be preferred to the state.
He believed that the liberation struggle had not healed the injuries and trauma that were the true legacy of colonialism.
After liberation, the native élite had been ensconced in intellectual
laziness and cowardice. In its will to imitation and its inability to
invent anything of its own, the native bourgeoisie had assimilated the
most corrupt forms of colonialist and racist thought.
Afflicted with precocious senility, the educated classes were stuck in a great procession of corruption.
The innermost vocation of the new ruling class seemed to be part of
the racket or the loot. It had annexed state power for its own profit
and transformed the former liberation movement into a trade union of
individual interests while making itself into a screen between the
masses and their leaders.
Fanon was equally scornful of nationalization which he saw not as a
genuine mechanism to build a national economy but as a scandalous,
speedy and pitiless form of enrichment.
He warned against the descent of the urban unemployed masses into
lumpen-violence. As soon as the struggle is over, he argued, they start a
fight against non-national Africans. From nationalism they pass to
chauvinism, negrophobia and finally to racism. They are quick to insist
that foreign Africans go home to their country. They burn their shops,
wreck their street stalls and spill their blood on the city’s pavements
and in the shantytowns.
Surveying the postcolony, Fanon could only see a coming nightmare –
an indigenous ruling class luxuriating in the delicious depravities of
the Western bourgeoisie, addicted to rest and relaxation in pleasure
resorts, casinos and beaches, spending large sums on display, on cars,
watches, shoes and foreign labels.
In his post-liberation nightmare, he could distinctly see stupidity
parading as leadership, patriarchy turning women into wives, vulgarity
going hand in hand with the corruption of the mind and of the flesh, all
in the midst of hilarity and demobilization.
The spectacle of Africans representing themselves to the world as the
archetype of stupidity, brutality and profligacy, he confided, made him
angry and sick at heart.
To read Fanon today means to translate into the language of our times
the major questions that forced him to stand up, to break away from his
roots, and to walk with others, companions on a new road which the
colonized had to trace on their own, by their own creativity, with their
All around us, it is easy to see elements of his nightmare. Globally,
new forms of colonial warfare and occupation are taking shape, with
their share of counter-insurgent tactics and torture, Delta camps,
secret prisons, and their mixture of militarism and plundering of
New forms of social Apartheid and structural destitution have
replaced the old colonial divisions. As a result of global processes of
accumulation by dispossession, deep inequities are being entrenched by
an ever more brutal economic system. The ability of many to remain
masters of their own lives is once again tested to the limits.
No wonder under such conditions, many are not only willing to invoke
once again Frantz Fanon’s heretic name, his sparkling, volcanic and
exploding face. They are willing to stand up and rise again.
I myself have been attracted to Fanon’s name and voice because both
have the brightness of metal. His is a metamorphic thought, animated by
an indestructible will to live. What gives this metallic thinking its
force and power is the air of indestructibility and the inexhaustible
silo of humanity which it houses.