Friday, 3 May 2013

New Preface to the Arabic translation of 'Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination'

New Preface to the Arabic translation of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination

by Nigel Gibson

It is with great pleasure and a sense of great honor that I write this introduction to the Arabic translation of Fanon: A Postcolonial Imagination.  I am particularly indebted to Dr. Fayiz Suyyagh and all those associated with the Tarjuman Unit for this opportunity; I am also cognizant of the historic context of this translation, the massive and continuing revolts popularly known as the “Arab Spring” which have helped generate renewed interest in Frantz Fanon’s ideas.

When it was published, Fanon’s last book, Les damnés de la terre, was roundly criticized by the French liberal and left intelligentsia. Communists and liberals agreed: Fanon’s analysis was flawed, his insights did not add up to a theory, he made wild generalizations with his dismissal of the proletariat as revolutionary, which was as absurd as his embrace of the peasantry and “lumpen-proletariat.” In France Les damnés only sold a few thousand copies. Translated into a number of languages over the next few years, it was the United States of America, that land of lynchers as Fanon put it, where his books first became famous. And yet, as Black radicals in the U.S. quoted The Wretched of the Earth and found Black Skin White Masks a source for their own psychological liberation, he was caricatured, even by those as sophisticated as Hannah Arendt, as a philosopher of violence. The legacy of such inaccurate reductionism is still felt fifty years later.

While the Black Panther Party in the U.S., which associated Fanon with revolutionary Algeria, opened up an international office in Algiers in 1970, in reality Fanon had been completely forgotten by the leaders of the newly independent Algeria. His writings were too critical for the new regime. And even when an Arabic translation of Les damnés by two Syrians, the author and nationalist politician Jamal al-Attassi and the well-respected translator Sami Droubi, appeared in 1963, its revolutionary significance was hamstrung by the elision of Fanon’s criticisms of the nationalist elites—party, military, and intellectual—who were ruling across the regime in the guise of socialism and Pan-Arabism.

Perhaps the most important interpretation of Fanon in the region came through the work of the French educated Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati. Shariati had corresponded with Fanon while translating A Dying Colonialism into Persian and developed a synthesis of Fanon’s ideas with Shi’a Islam.[1] Fanon had replied to Shariati about A Dying Colonialism, making it clear that he did not share his views “with respect to Islam.” The difference was deeply political and should not be dismissed as a manifestation of Fanon’s atheism or a misunderstanding of the place of Islam in Arab culture. Rather, thinking from within the Algerian revolution, Fanon was concerned that any system of thought—secular or religious—could take the place of developing a truly liberatory ideology, one based in the radical actions, and radical changes in social relations and thinking that had been generated by the popular struggle from the bottom up. Replying to Shariati, he said he feared “that the spirit of sectarianism and religion may result in a setback for a nation that is negated in the process of becoming, of distancing it from its future and immobilizing it in its past.”[2] In fact, Shariati’s attempted synthesis of Fanon and Shi’ism had an important influence on Iranian intellectuals, even creeping into Khomeini’s’ political rhetoric and becoming popularized during the Iranian revolution.[3]

 The popularization of Fanon encouraged by the Black Panthers and by Ali Shariati have resulted in Fanon’s arguments and ideas being vulgarized, distorted and ultimately turned into their opposites. His quest for human liberation has been turned into a justification for what he fought against, a reactionary anti-imperialism or essentialist and patriarchal cultural nationalism; any ideology that, as he put it to Shariati, immobilizes the struggle for freedom. Correcting these and other distortions, born out of the canonization of Fanon in postcolonial studies, was one of the tasks of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. My goal was to explicate Fanon’s thought for itself; and looking back, now, ten years after its original English publication, the idea of radical changes in consciousness that are the hallmark of historic revolutionary movements remains pivotal to elucidating Fanon’s dialectic of liberation.

Fanon’s Marxian notion that people change as they make history, which he explores in some depth in A Dying Colonialism, keeps being concretized as we have seen, across the Arab world. But just as Fanon cannot be simply mechanically applied to the contemporary revolt, neither is the meaning of any revolt immediately clear. Fanon’s call to work out new concepts in the context of and engagement with mass movements, with full knowledge of history and its process of becoming, remains the challenge to radical theoreticians. And thus, while Fanon is interpreted as a thinker for our postcolonial period, the work of interpretation is not simply one of representation. In Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination, I have tried instead to remain faithful to what I consider Fanon’s untidy dialectic, because Fanonian thinking develops not posteriori, but in the context of the struggle for liberation. At the same time, however, I have tried to highlight Fanon’s thought as a totality.

It is often forgotten that Fanon was a psychiatrist. Beneath his concern for the social, economic, and political liberation of colonized people lay his belief in the importance of psychological health and mental liberation.  For Fanon the social, political and psychological were all interconnected, each an element of what he called a “new humanism.” As I argue in chapter four of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination, becoming Algerian and identifying one hundred percent with the liberation struggle was a result of the impossible situation Fanon found himself in Blida-Joinville Hospital. The psychic health of the Algerian people as a whole, not only those at the hospital, was at stake. He could no longer work, he argued in his resignation letter, in a situation which encouraged the systematic dehumanization and decerebralization of the people. Akin to contemporary authoritarian regimes, the legitimacy of the dying colonialism in Algeria was based on brute force with no possible reciprocity other than through violence. This is the truth of postcolonialism where the damned of the earth, the majority of the people made wretched by (neo) colonialism, are condemned to struggle for survival and their very non-existence as human beings is held in place by violence. The colonized and wretched of the earth are reduced to the status of non-beings. Without reciprocity, without equality, there is no ethical standard, and for Fanon a society that keeps people in their place by violence and the fear it creates, by the secret police, and by torture is indicative of a sick society that must be replaced.

Fanon’s reconceptualization of the dialectic, developed in his critique of Hegel, was not simply understood to force recognition from the master, but to establish a totally new element. The new element was the objective truth of the actional subjectivity of those who had been held in check and denied their humanness. It was only on this ground that a genuine reciprocity, “the birth of a human world”[4] could emerge. For Fanon, action was crucial, and he recognized that the new beginning was signaled by cognitive liberation; that is to say it is only when people experience a liberation from the fear that has held them in place for years that they begin to understand their collective social power. By transgressing the physical and psychical spatial boundaries that condemn them, they can be said to have entered the revolutionary moment. And yet, this moment, often experienced as standing up against the asymmetrical violence of the state, is only the beginning of Fanon’s dialectic of liberation.

            Fanon writes of the debilitating and traumatic effects of war on all people. According to Fanon’s colleague, Alice Cherki, Fanon abhorred violence. And critics, fixated on the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, “Concerning Violence,” have ignored how the work is bookended by the psychological effects of the colonial war. Thus Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist and his deep sensibility to human suffering has been elided. The dimension of human tragedy conveyed in these case studies indicates another of Fanon’s concerns, namely the ongoing work of healing and disalienation continued for an indefinite period after the end of colonial rule.

            The psychological and social liberation of the individual and of the community, including Fanon’s acute awareness of the brutal impact of debilitating poverty, underscores the importance and openness of Fanon’s untidy dialectic which, I argue, is expressed in Fanon’s critique of Sartre in Black Skin White Masks. Fanon always returns to lived human experience without any recourse to an external unifier (party, state, or ideology, including religion that “already knows”) to judge the outcome of individual and social struggle. The simplicity of the method is exposed in Fanon’s “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” where he asks the question that is on everyone’s mind, “was independence worth fighting for?” Today, after the “Arab spring,” which did help to liberate minds from fear, we might further ask, are these nations now doomed to repeat another cycle of authoritarian rule by a new set of elites? Or will it be the second phase of the anticolonial revolution that Fanon had hoped?  And how can an engagement with Fanon aid that new phase?

In Les damnés de la terre, Fanon speculates that predicting the timing of a revolution is a fool’s game. And yet when the lid blows off, as it did in Tunisia in the spring of 2011, there is nothing that can stop the spread of the idea. And that idea—that it is masses of self-organized people, not elite politicians that change history and make history—quickly took on a global dimension. The idea that the Arab masses were ideologically and politically astute made concrete Fanon’s conclusion to Les damnés, that part of the intellectual’s daily work (whether that intellectual is from the university or the shanty town) is to convince the oppressed that they become political leaders through collectivity and thereby do away with the old idea of political leadership.[5] And though we often hear the tired lament among intellectuals, often promoted by the Western media and by the local elites, that the masses are politically backward and unable to see beyond their immediate needs, we hear every day of men and women across the Arab world, coming together under the most dire circumstances, and organizing the daily running of “liberated spaces.” Standing up to the violence of the state, whether there is no resort to arms or whether the absolute and enduring violence of the state necessitates an armed response, are forms of counter violence. In other words, as I point out in Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination, to be made thinkable, any discussion of violence has to be historicized. For Fanon collectively standing up against oppression and for the human dignity is essential role but it is always carried out without guarantees and with tremendous risk.  

And yet, at the same time we have to be cognizant of what Fanon called the strengths and weaknesses of spontaneity. Fanon notes that the struggle is often first organized in reaction to the oppressor, so when there is a change of tactics the movement often suffers. Where early local successes seem to buoy the belief that victory is near, there becomes the need for a deeper reflection and strategy. Insurgent movements quickly discover that air raids and sophisticated military hardware means that there cannot be a strategically privileged position. This is not simply a change of military operations but entails wholly new relations between the armed militants and the local people. Indeed, Fanon insists, and his resolve remains significant, that the future cannot be decided by military tactics but only by the most inclusive discussion that encourages masses of people to be involved in articulating, often in the most practical of ways, the goals of the struggle. It is this thinking and acting together that helps nurture a new social consciousness. Thus, revolutionary humanism is an expression of what Fanon calls the “radical mutation in consciousness” that accompanies social revolution.

Rather than simply celebrating spontaneous revolt as if that would in itself signal the end of the regime, a crucial part of Fanon’s philosophic legacy calls for moving beyond Manichean and reactive thinking, and opening up revolutionary thought to the uncertainties and challenges of thinking practically about a new society in the context of the real (not abstract) current social struggle. Calling the militant’s voluntarist and anti-intellectual use of shortcuts to get things done atrocious, inhuman, and sterile,[6] the question did not concern the leftist notion of raising the consciousness of the “backward masses” but rather, how new forms and theories of organization maintain an ongoing liberation outside the fetish of state-centric politics.

It is in this dangerous “interregnum”—in which the old is dying, as Gramsci put, and the new cannot be born[7]—that life can be pumped into bankrupt, reactionary, and fundamentalist ideologies. Fanon warns that such politics cannot sustain a liberation movement and can instead become a politics of identity based on racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia. Resentment and revenge, feelings often encouraged during the struggle for short-term ends, cannot create liberated beings; and actions based on mimicking the colonizer give rise to new forms of chauvinism and gangsterism. Fanon points out that during the anticolonial struggle, a politics of subservience, often justified by the need for unity against a common enemy, takes the place of a culture of discussion (and democracy). This “sclerotization” of politics[8] leads to a “brutality of thought,” a brutality which is not simply a reflection of colonialist and capitalist dehumanization, but is also the product of reactions to the violence of the increasingly cornered authoritarian regime. Fanon understood that in an armed struggle, brutality is often encouraged by the asymmetry of a liberation war which can only answer aerial bombing with rifle fire. Critical of any turn toward militarism, and a purely military solution, he warned of the “brutality of thought typical of revolutionary voluntarism.”[9] What was crucial, he argued was the ability of revolutionary movements to entertain shades of meaning and thoughtful debates from within the struggle that creates a real basis for solidarity. Rejecting a knee-jerk anti-imperialism that leads to short-term alliances with oppressive regimes, Fanon speaks of a revolutionary humanism arguing that the militant intellectual’s role is to help the movement’s self-comprehension always emphasizing that ideas matter and that “exploitation can wear a black face or an Arab one.”[10] Critical of appeals to identity, Fanon’s concept of national liberation become a politics in which “every kind of genius may grow.” To talk about the future society, for example, was to include everyone without reference to any identity. The future had to be “open to all.”[11]

If the function of society is to serve human needs, this must also be the measure of any truly decolonized society. Just as Fanon’s was aware of the brutality of the postcolonial party/military/state manifested by the security apparatus “immobilizing and terrorizing” the people,[12] he understood that the struggle for true liberation also bred pathologies, psychological disorders, traumas and stresses, created by extreme situations. These would have to be addressed humanely and patiently through sociotherapy and other collective therapies. In the last chapter of his final book, The Wretched of the Earth, which colors the Fanon of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination and remains an important maxim, he contends that “the important theoretical problem” is not simply vigilance but one of self-study and self-reflection: “at all times and in all places, to make explicit, to demystify, and to harry the insult to humanity that exists in oneself” (my emphasis).[13]

[1] As well as translating Les damnés into Persian, Shariati transformed some of Fanon’s concepts, for example translating the damned or wretched of the earth into the Islamic term, downtrodden (mostazafin).
[2] Quoting in Alice Cherki, Fanon: A Portrait (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 2006) p. 199.
[3] See Homi Bhabha’s foreword to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004) p. xxx. Alice Cherki notes that Fanon’s name, specifically “our Brother Frantz Fanon,” was printed on posters which asserted that wearing the Chador was an anti-imperialist act. See Alice Cherki, Fanon: A Portrait (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 2006) p. 200. This had little to do with what Fanon argued in his essay “Algeria Unveiled” which is discussed in Chapter 6 of Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination.
[4] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (Grove: New York, 2008) p.193.
[5] On Fanon’s challenge to intellectuals see my Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo. New York: Palgrave Press, 2011.
[6] See Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth  (New York: Grove, 1968) p. 199.
[7] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971) p. 276.
[8] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review), p.67.
[9] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth  (New York: Grove, 1968) p. 147.
[10] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1968) p. 146.
[11] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review), p.32.
[12] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1968) p. 175.
[13] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1968) p. 305.