Sunday, 18 May 2014

A response to Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism

Jonis Ghedi Alasow

Frantz Fanon’s 1959 book, A Dying Colonialism, offers an insightful account of the Algerian War of Independence. In spite of its often gruelling subject matter, this book remains strangely optimistic. As the title suggest, Fanon is describing the end of a system. It is important to note that Fanon is not arguing that colonialism has indeed ended already, but rather that the end is coming soon. Simply put his book is a convincing argument for how colonialism is in decline. How there cannot be a future that sees Algeria under colonial rule. How “colonialism has definitely lost out in Algeria” (Fanon, 1959: 31). In this response I will discuss some of the reasons why Fanon is so certain that the end of colonialism in Algeria was imminent when he wrote in the late 1950s. Why was he so optimistic in spite of not having the benefit of hindsight that we have now?

There is no doubt that the French forces were throwing everything they had at the resistance movement in Algeria. As an active participant in this resistance, Fanon would have been aware of this. Nevertheless he felt that the French had already lost the war. Fanon saw how the French had already lost the battle for controlling the Algerian psychology. They had lost the battle for ideas. In light of the work of Antonio Gramsci, they were not able to exercise hegemony in Algeria. They for instance tried to convince Algerian women that they were being oppressed (Fanon, 1959: 38). By doing this they hoped to gain power over men whilst simultaneously destroying Algerian culture[1] (Fanon, 1959: 38). This was clearly an instance of what Gayatri Spivak refers to as the phenomenon of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1999: 33). Fanon sees this attempt by the French as an absolute failure. Even though they do indeed use the rhetoric that is so clearly articulated by Spivak, they are not able to influence ideas. During the revolution women would at times not wear the veil and thus give the impression that the French were winning their war for hegemony. Yet, these women were still resisting colonialism. They would only unveil in order to transport weapons or explosives to assist the liberation movement (Fanon, 1959: 61). At other times they would wear the veil, but this would still serve the same purpose of assisting the fight against colonialism. What the French therefore did not understand is the fact that the Algerian people valued freedom from oppression above all. Whether the women were veiled or not, the resistance to colonialism remained fundamental.

It is the above mentioned idea of independence from the oppressive French colonial system that, according to Fanon, was quintessential throughout. The revolution brought about a change in the assumptions made by people. One of the most striking of these was the fact that people no longer made the distinction between things that are from the colonised and things that are from the colonisers. For the liberation movement and the many Algerians who supported it there was only that which aided freedom and that which aided continuing oppression. As a result of this previously held norms around culture, dress, the media and medicine became, at least temporarily, obsolete. The Algerian people did not object for instance to the radio as they had before. This is because the radio served as a means of remaining informed, thus aiding the revolution (Fanon, 1959: 82). Just as social media was acceptable in the recent Arab spring for its ability to aid the revolution, the radio was embraced in Algeria in the 1950s.

It is not only norms relating to the media that changed during the revolution. Also, norms within the family were affected by the liberation struggle. Prior to the start of the revolution, fathers were the ones who had the necessary understanding of life and society that made them the supreme authorities in Algerian households (Fanon, 1959: 102). The struggle for liberation changed all of this. The war for independence changed the society and day-to-day life to such an extent that fathers were no wiser than everyone else (Fanon, 1959: 105). In light of this it is evident that the instability brought about by the revolution served the purpose of making Algerian society more egalitarian. Within the FLN men, Europeans, the rich, or anyone else traditionally dominant was as new to the situation as everyone else. Thus a particularly progressive equality developed during the resistance.

In his book, Fanon also deals with the very interesting question of Europeans in the colony. He gives the account of Charles Geromini who was a European who supported the FLN. A key concern during the struggle was in fact what would come after the struggle. What would a free Algeria look like (Fanon, 1959: 168)? For Fanon and other members of the resistance movement a free Algeria would include everyone who identifies with a free Algeria (Fanon, 1959: 158). This could include Europeans, but not the colonisers. Thus Fanon again makes the important distinction between white people or Europeans on the one hand and the coloniser on the other. For him the two are not synonymous. In this book he therefore maintains a strong critique of a system which he finds problematic. What is dying is a system of government which in the colonies also makes ontological assumptions which are problematic. From the outset Fanon makes this clear that colonialism is oppressive to all, the coloniser and the colonised both are subjected to its psychological cruelties (Fanon, 1959: 32).

In conclusion it is therefore evident that Fanon holds the view that colonialism is fighting a losing battle. For him the battle for ideas has already been won by the determined Algerian people who cannot go back to the oppression they have seen before. He concludes his book by pointing out that the “revolution has changed man [sic] and renewed society” (Fanon, 1959: 181). Thus anyone involved in Algeria, coloniser and colonised, will change as a result of the revolution. For Fanon, this change remains one for the better. At this point already he is optimistic about a future Algerian society that recognises “the open door of every consciousness” (Fanon, 1952: 181). The system of colonialism is thus truly dying and out of it is rising a freshly emancipated Algerian society.

Works Cited:

·        Fanon, F. 1959, A Dying Colonialism, Grove Press: New York.
·        Spivak, G. 1999, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Ashcroft, B (ed), 2006, Routledge: London.
·        Fanon, F. 1952, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press: London.

[1] A common culture is something around which people are able to unite. The French hoped that by destroying the culture that many Algerians shared, they would decrease the chance of a revolt. This was essentially a system of divide and rule.