Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Down a New Road: Thoughts on Fanon’s Revolutionary Praxis

Bring the Ruckus 

The following theoretical work by Arturo, a member of BtR-Philly, examines the concepts of praxis, spontaneity, cadre and humanity in the work of revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon. It is accompanied by a piece of visual art by Lainie, a member of BtR-NYC, which places Fanon within a historical trajectory of mass struggle from colonization to the present.

Down a New Road:
Thoughts on Fanon’s Revolutionary Praxis

By Arturo

What I call middle-class society is any society that becomes rigidified in predetermined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress, all discovery…a closed society in which life has no taste.
     —Fanon, Black Skin White Masks

Revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
     —Marx and Engels, The German Ideology

Initially subjective, the breaches made in colonialism are the result of a victory of the colonized over their old fear and over the atmosphere of despair distilled day after day by a colonialism that has incrusted itself with the prospect of enduring forever.
     —Fanon, A Dying Colonialism

That people change at the same time that they change the world is a basic fact of revolutionary praxis. In the very moment of lashing out against an insuperable oppression the individual undergoes a radical alteration. Frantz Fanon took this observation a step further in arguing that at the very center of the individual participating in social change is not only a “remodeling” of the consciousness we have of ourselves, or the ruling class and its world, “at last within reach”—there is also a “renewal” of the “symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people,” in short, the “reassertion” of our “capacity to progress.”1 This intersection of thought and practice is the critical focus of Fanon’s dialectical conception of revolutionary praxis. A common theme in his theoretical work, a theme fiercely developed by Fanon scholar Lewis Gordon, is that of human consciousness as an open-ended question, as a lived experience of the body in movement, in antagonism with the inhuman institutions of society. This consideration stimulates the question: how and why does revolutionary thought arise in the process of battle for a new humanity?

True to the nature of his ideas, to read Fanon’s writings is to engage in a continual process of methodological self-reflection. One finds oneself going back to the texts at an unusual frequency, discovering new ways of interpretation. To start off with, if one is to study Fanon’s conception of revolutionary praxis, one must begin with the basic thesis that the human is a perpetual question—that “basic personality” is not “a constant,” but rather “a variable.”2 V.I. Lenin and other communist philosophers have somewhat of a similar existential tendency in this regard. Lenin wrote in Guerrilla Warfare “new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes…the coming crises will introduce new forms of struggle that we are now unable to foresee.” In other words, revolutionary praxis is never a fixed dogma. It is born out of the changing circumstances of the historical space and the political time of each revolutionary situation. That is another thesis of Fanon’s, which overlaps with a similar tradition in C.L.R. James and Gordon: that a people cannot know in advance what forms of organization and methods of struggle their liberation will take, for to attempt to do so is to impose bureaucratic abstractions on a living, breathing phenomenon. Marx also reflected this current when he declared that “I am not going to write any recipes for the cook shops of the future.” In revolution there is never the guarantee of a future heaven and always the risk of failure.

Let’s look at some examples of how this revolutionary praxis plays out. Fanon highlights in A Dying Colonialism how the possibility of a new horizon not previously imaginable emerges in periods of revolutionary upsurge. In his essay “Algeria Unveiled” Fanon details the transformation of the Algerian woman who participates in the national liberation struggle, an involvement that necessitates a radical reorganization and reexamination of the familial structure of Algerian society. “The old fear of dishonor was swept away by a new fear, fresh and cold—that of death in battle or torture of the girl. Behind the girl, the whole family—even the Algerian father, the authority for all things, the founder of every value—following in her footsteps, becomes committed to the new Algeria.”3 Hierarchal customs, fixed relics of the past, flexibly adjusted themselves to new conditions as they arose. The veil, a symbol of sexual subordination, became an instrument of female rebellion, a means to sneak weapons past the French military. Defying all tradition, the veil was taken off—Algerian women Europeanized themselves in order to further deceive the enemy. In the Algerian woman was the birth of a completely new consciousness, “without preliminary instruction,” without a previously known “character to imitate.”4

A similar methodological shift is detailed in “This Is the Voice of Algeria” and in “Medicine and Colonialism.” Fanon explains how the radio and medicine of Europeans were at first rejected by Algerians, just as attempts by Europeans to unveil the Algerian woman were rejected, not because of backwardness, but because they were techniques solely in the hands of the occupiers, which threatened to annihilate Algerian national consciousness. To preserve from foreign intrusion ones basic personality, ones native consciousness of the world, even if metaphysically, was more important than finding a common ground with the enemy. Moreover, new forms of resistance beyond the old ones were made possible through the conservation of traditional values in the face of the interruption of colonialism. In the midst of racial domination and repression Algerians preserved their national consciousness while imaginatively recreating it. Fanon goes on to show how techniques of colonialism were expropriated by the colonized, the radio and medicine rapidly adopted by Algerians in the war of independence and used in completely new ways, synthesized with traditional constructions of reality, transforming instruments of colonial oppression into those of native liberation. The necessities of combat against French colonialism forced the “dislocation of old myths,” giving rise to “new attitudes, to new modes of action, to new ways,” in short, to a new praxis.5
Fanon highlights how these kinds of revolutionary modifications cannot fit neatly into objective or quantitative frameworks; shifts of praxis cannot be calculated as mathematical equations are calculated. “At the level of actual experience, one cannot expect to obtain a rationalization of attitudes and choices.”6 The subjective reasoning of the colonized in choosing to reject the techniques of the colonizers in order to safeguard their native ideas and practices, when objectively, in cold rationality, these foreign techniques could have benefited them, and then taking the techniques up in the course of the revolution—the reasons for this cannot be inventoried. They are situated within a particular experience of reality.

Two plus two does not always equal four. Sometimes two plus two equals four plus four plus four. What seems impossible in times of relative stability, “with its known, categorized, regulated comings and goings,” becomes possible in peaks of revolutionary activity.7 New conditions of life in the period of the war of independence allowed Algerians to act in ways that transformed society and themselves in the process. However, the mask of the old world is not taken off as an item of clothing is taken off. It does not entail the reaching of a pure stage. Instead, the mask unravels in the moment of struggle itself. As Fanon puts it, the “problems are resolved in the very movement that raises them.”8 New capabilities are realized in practice, even when theoretical considerations are necessarily an afterthought. In Fanon’s revolutionary praxis, then, in the objective as well as the subjective level, there is a reciprocal interrelation, not an “automatic interdependence.”9

That human existence is not a purely objective subject of study complicates attempts to measure the revolutionary potential of the average person, to predict when, where, how, why the masses will revolt. It is more than an empirical and formal expression that can be captured by the survey, where the social scientist inventories the opinions of a certain category. Do you think the youth curfew is necessary? Do you like the police? Yes, no, maybe so. Who knows? Sometimes what we think and do as isolated individuals being interviewed is not necessarily what we think and do as part of a sociality of people in motion. Sometimes we surprise ourselves with what we are capable of. In mass uprisings people take their lives into their own hands not by passing a super-majority vote, but because the sheer force of a collective will makes rebellion possible in the here and now, a joint awareness that together means everything and separately means nothing. Stimulated by a collective consciousness tied to specific historical conditions, the ever-capricious revolt, what might seem like an irrational proposal one month, becomes a matter of fact the next. No, in even in less, in the heat of a moment. Every revolutionary development, its organization in history, has developed through this dialectic of spontaneity.

Regardless of what anybody might answer in a sociological survey, the fact of the matter is that people resist oppressive conditions of life on impulse, not because of an exceptional strategy memorized ahead of time, not because objective conditions are ripe enough, but because their mode of existence necessitates it, because they simply cannot breathe otherwise. The irony is that suffocation forces us to grasp for air. Thus, Fanon explains how within the psychology of colonization “it is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude.”10 The contradiction that takes the form of dehumanization becomes the opposite of that when one cannot live in a dreadful situation without resisting it. Compressed by inertia, one must move, possibly explode.

The ideas of Marx, Lenin, James, Fanon and others within this radical legacy bring us to the conclusion that revolutions are ultimately made not by the revolutionary cadre, but by the creative reflexes of the masses of everyday people, who with all their limitations have the power to transform society from the bottom up. Those stuck in the past—with all the answers—take this fact to mystify the intervening role of the revolutionist. If they cannot deliberately and arbitrarily fulfill their duty to lead the way, then they might as well leave the inevitable to its own spontaneous devices, waiting for objective conditions to present the perfect moment to intervene. Even more, there is also the nihilist reaction where the holy revolution is dismissed altogether. If a decisive victory is impossible, then why should one choose to fight the unwinnable fight then? If one fights regardless of a guaranteed outcome of triumph, does the fight not become a childish end in of itself?

We learn how to fight by fighting, even if we lose the fight. Countless revolutionary thinkers have detailed this point, that the struggle is a testing ground of methods. What is possible and necessary arises from within the conflict itself—from the inside out, not from the outside in. Spontaneous rebellion does not simply fall from out of the sky. It is precipitated by generations of daily struggles, often mundane and under the surface, involving countless small victories and defeats, where the unending lessons of building a new world are learned in growing pains, through trial and error, eliminating failures and experimenting with alternatives. Here is where crucial role of the revolutionists comes into play. Rather than essentializing and becoming “an uncritical mouthpiece of the masses,”11 the revolutionary cadre instead refracts the revolutionary self-activity of the people, while ruthlessly criticizing the stagnant elements that compromise it. This entails a constant reevaluation and re-conceptualization of methods. If we are going to learn from our mistakes, if we are going to take risks in the development of our thoughts and actions, then we need organization flexible enough to modify itself to an ever-changing backdrop, as Fanon fleshed out in The Wretched of the Earth.

Because he understood that a form of struggle necessary in one historical circumstance acts as a break when superimposed on another, Fanon argued that the analysis of class society developed by Marx had to be “stretched” out when examining societies built through settler-colonialism. He criticized the nationalist parties in Algeria for trying to mechanically apply to the colonial context a predetermined method of organization derived from Europe: the political party. “This instrument of modern political warfare is thrown down just as it is, without the slightest modification, upon real life with all its infinite variations and lack of balance.”12 Striving to develop revolutionary praxis for the racist situation, Fanon concluded that in such societies there is not just a clash between a ruling class and a working class, but also a clash between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic positions of what it means to be human in the world, as Gordon explains.13
The colonized, the racially subjugated, are alienated not only as non-humans, but also as anti-humans, as the negation of human values, pushed outside of human recognition in the self-other dialectic.14 While new orientations of what it means to be human grow from the day-to-day opposition of human positions in constant motion, at the same time, the positive remains trapped within the negative, a new humanity suffocates under the dead-weight of the old, as the system of values and mode of life that is whiteness produces itself and race as a permanent category, fixing the perpetual question of human existence, leaving us stuck in the muck of the past. In this sense, Fanon approached the world-view of the white as anti-human, as a challenge to the emergence of a new, unbound humanity. He approached this hegemonic world-consciousness as an unacceptable standard of behavior and conduct for a truly human world, “that is, a world of reciprocal recognition.”15 As Gordon argues in light of Fanon’s conclusion, a human future is one in which the white “no longer exists in virtue of his ceasing to function as the End, or less ambiguously, the telos of Man.”16

Fanon’s revolutionary praxis thus demands new positional concepts of what it means to be human.
Any serious study of the human condition must take into account that we literally bring society into being, as Fanon argues,17 constantly recreating and giving new meaning to it through the motivating force of our interpretation, as Gordon further elaborates.18 The problem of revolutionary praxis, then, “includes not only the interrelations of objective historical conditions but also human attitudes towards these conditions.”19 Thus, the question of moving towards a new human meaning behind certain facts and behaviors entails a question of aesthetics.20 This is a further implication of Fanon’s praxis that correlates with that of James’: revolutionists must learn from the revolutionary self-activity of the masses and represent it in the way we pose our problems and solutions and in how we intervene to heighten contradictions. We make clear our role as revolutionists not just by what we are doing and saying, but also by how we are doing and saying it. To engage in a more far-reaching praxis we must therefore interrogate our very method of interrogation, a double interrogation, as Gordon puts it. Because the content of human existence does not come prepared and readymade, the complex reality of interacting with it, of studying it, of articulating it, of challenging it, requires a form of expression that is improvisational, imaginative, a rebellious art.

Refusing to “erect a framework around the people which follows an a priori schedule,” Fanon tried to ignite the revolution from “the interior to the exterior.”21 This entails more that attacking an external object, an abstraction of inhuman structures and relations. This is necessary. But it is more than objective material conditions that stimulate revolt. In having to innovatively adapt to the world and engage in battle against it—a world beyond control, yet always within some reach—people not only act and think in new ways, but embody an internally driven praxis; an inner movement extending beyond itself which carries them forward in the face of certain uncertainty. More than just words and actions, this collective awareness is a way of living and of dying on our own terms that ties experience to consciousness, existence to essence, suffering to significance. In the unraveling of the contradiction between the theoretical and the practical there is the unending renewal of the subjective being within an objective universality.

1. Fanon, Frantz, A Dying Colonialism, 30.
2. Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin White Masks, 49.
3. A Dying Colonialism, 60.
4. A Dying Colonialism, 50.
5. A Dying Colonialism, “Algeria Unveiled,”64.
6. A Dying Colonialism, 72
7. A Dying Colonialism, 49
8. A Dying Colonialism, 48.
9. Black Skin White Masks, 11
10. A Dying Colonialism, 47.
11. Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, 49.
12. The Wretched of the Earth, 108.
13. The Wretched of the Earth, 40.
14. The Wretched of the Earth, 41.
15. Black Skin White Masks, 218.
16. Gordon, Lewis, Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: An Essay on Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 12.
17. Black Skin White Masks, 11.
18. Fanon and the Crisis of European Man, 21.
19. Black Skin White Masks, 84.
20. Black Skin White Masks, 168.
21. The Wretched of the Earth, 113.