Sunday, 11 May 2014

A Response to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth

by Jonis Ghedi Alasow

On his deathbed in 1961, Frantz Fanon dictated one of the most revolutionary texts of the twentieth century. The Wretched of the Earth is his most famous work and although it was published in 1961, the text has remained a quintessential text for understanding the postcolonial situation. It is important to note that the text does not take the form of a systematic argument that is leading towards proving/disproving some hypothesis. Les Damnés de la Terre is rather more of a soliloquy of Fanon’s thoughts and impressions. These thoughts and impressions can largely be categorised into three groups. Les Damnés de la Terre firstly offers an engagement with colonialism. Secondly, it offers Fanon’s thoughts and impressions on the process of decolonisation and lastly it lays down his thoughts and impressions on the post-colony.

 Before I continue with this response, there are a few things that need to be pointed out. Firstly, I will be referring to the book by its original title of Les Damnés de la Terre. This is due to the misleading implications in the English translation of the title. The second and final disclaimer I need to make is the fact that this is by no means a comprehensive engagement with Fanon’s text. I have simply commented on a few interesting ideas in Les Damnés de la Terre. I am particularly interested in demonstrating why it is that I consider this text a ‘quintessential text for understanding the postcolonial situation’.

Fanon sets the book out with a discussion of violence. This is arguably the most misunderstood chapter Fanon has ever written and it is often interpreted as propaganda for violence. This chapter is in my view misunderstood due to the fact that readers fail to recognise the abovementioned three concerns in Les Damnés de la Terre. This book is not simply a manual for decolonisation which is prepared to endorse violence. It is simultaneously a description of colonialism, decolonisation and the post-colony. It must therefore be recognised that the violence Fanon speaks of, and at times condones, is complex. It is firstly both physical and psychological and it is secondly concerned with all three stages mentioned earlier[1].

Fanon introduces his chapter on violence by describing the Manichaeism that is created between the coloniser and the colonised (Fanon, 1961: 32). The violent binary that is created here extends to all aspects of life in the colony. On a moral level, the coloniser is good whilst the colonised is evil; on an ontological level, the coloniser is human and the colonised is not; even in terms of living space, the coloniser lives in the clean, spacious cities, whilst the colonised lives in the dirty cramped outskirts. This Manichaeism which is created and maintained by the colonisers is a form of psychological violence in the colony. On top of this psychological violence, the colony is subject to physical violence. The very existence of the colony is rooted in physical violence. Land was forcefully taken from those who are now colonised.

This violence of the oppressive system of colonialism dominates the colonised. The colonised is unable to vent his/her anger against the oppressor and thus the anger is turned towards other colonised people (Fanon, 1961: 41). In my view Fanon’s claim can be applied to South Africa in two instances. The first is the often unrecorded violence amongst black South Africans during apartheid. These men and women were frustrated with the status quo to the extent that they vented this anger against their fellow men and women. The prevalence of youth gangs throughout South Africa’s history serves as proof of this. The second instance where I think one could apply this is in contemporary South Africa. Though we are not strictly speaking being colonised, we do live under a system where a small group oppresses the majority. In South Africa this constitutes a form of neo-colonialism. We have not managed to decolonise completely and have thus not escaped the colonial situation. Violent crime is particularly high amongst marginalised groups in South Africa. We are therefore currently in the midst of the initial stage of violence among those who are oppressed. Fanon is careful to point out that this is however only the initial stage. Before long this violence turns towards the oppressor. The frustration with the status quo causes anger which is vented against the coloniser. The colonised begins to realise that the coloniser understands only force[2] (Fanon, 1961: 66). In light of this it is useful to consider the trajectory that South Africa might take in future. We have seen the phase where violence and anger remain amongst the subaltern groups in society. How long before this anger is turned against the oppressors?

From the above trajectory follows a violent period of decolonisation. Here the coloniser is prepared to use whatever means are necessary to maintain the status quo, whilst the colonised is prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure emancipation. This inevitably leads to a violent confrontation considering that each side proposes a system that is completely incompatible with the one proposed by the other. Fanon’s argument that violence from both sides is inevitable, has been critiqued by many readers of Les Damnés de la Terre. These people often argue that the process of decolonisation can be peaceful if both parties are prepared to negotiate.[3] Fanon is however sceptical of the prospects of negotiations (Fanon, 1961: 48). These imply a compromise between the two parties. This is out of the question for Fanon. Compromises imply that the violence of colonialism is allowed to continue, at least partially. Fanon asks for true emancipation. Not a shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism (Fanon, 1961: 51). The problem of partial decolonisation due to compromises and negotiations manifests itself here in South Africa where the material conditions for the average South African have not changed significantly since the end of apartheid. Leaders in the liberation movement were prepared to make concessions in the name of peace; but South Africans have paid the heavy price of continued neo-colonial violence which is still prevalent today.

Once independence is achieved the violence however does not necessarily end. If the process of decolonisation does not bring about true emancipation[4], then violence continues to manifests itself. The people who Fanon calls the “native bourgeoisie” simply replace the colonisers (1961: 47). One might argue that this is also what happened in South Africa where the system of oppression did not really come to an end. Rather, the face of oppression has changed since 1994.

According to Fanon this violence which is inherent in colonialism, decolonisation and the post-colony can only come to an end in the form of a socialist state (Fanon, 1961: 78). Neither capitalists nor elites[5] should have the power in Fanon’s socialist/decolonised future. Only once the masses are truly allowed to express their agency and subsequent political power is a colony emancipated and thus free of violence (Fanon, 1961: 81). Only once the masses govern themselves can one be decolonised.

In addition to the above, (Fanon, 1961: 81) makes interesting claims regarding the actual liberation movement. Fanon pays close attention to the workings of the liberation movement. He notes how the leaders of such a movement are often educated in the mother country and have adopted the values and ideas that originate from there (Fanon, 1961: 86). Even in their political work, they were members of worker unions and socialist parties in Europe where the urban working class is the group ‘with nothing to lose and everything to gain’ from a revolution (Fanon, 1961: 86). In the colony[6] this is not true. The working class is able to benefit, at least partially, from the colonial system. They are therefore not the ones who have nothing to lose. Rather they are the ones with everything to lose. The rural peasantry in the colony occupies the same position as the urban proletariat in the metropole (Fanon, 1961: 89). As a result, the urban workers’ movement formed by these returning intellectuals is in fact not a mass movement, but rather represents the interests of a small elite. The peasantry is in fact the group whose situation makes resistance to colonialism the only viable option. They are therefore the most potent force in the anti-colonial movement. Unfortunately, the fact that the liberation movement tends to represent the elites/urban working class, opposes them to the peasantry. The masses who are resisting the colonial project therefore are at times not members of the liberation movements. The liberation movements often are concerned with changing the face of the system, and not the actual system. The lumpen-proletariat is on the other hand interested in putting an absolute end to colonialism. These people are in Fanon’s view the masses and they are also the ones that ought to be taken seriously if true decolonisation is going to take place. Perhaps more importantly, they are the ones who are able to spearhead the struggle due to the fact that they are able to commit to it wholeheartedly. They after all have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Following his discussion of the process of decolonisation and the movements involved in this process, Fanon turns to the idea of national consciousness. The idea of a common nation which is under threat from colonialism and in need of protection by the members of that nation is often invoked by the liberation movements (Fanon, 1961: 135). The ANC for instance defined a South African nation in order to effectively oppose apartheid. For Fanon this notion is particularly dangerous, though necessary. The idea is necessary because it allows for people to unite around a given cause. They can identify with one another and use this unity around which they have defined themselves to oppose the oppressive system. At the same time, this is extremely dangerous. Defining a nation automatically excludes some people. This in turn gives rise to xenophobia[7] (Fanon, 1961: 136). It implies a national essence and this propagates the colonial notion of fundamental differences between people. The fact that Fanon is in agreement with most of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas around existentialism implies that the idea of a national essence is both false and problematic. It groups people together to unite against others, but it is not more than a momentarily necessary form of false consciousness. Furthermore, the nationalism that is endorsed by various liberation movements is often designed to maintain the existence of said liberation movement. In South Africa this means that nationalist ideas that are still being propagated by the ANC make the ANC responsible for independence in 1994. Furthermore, the political education which is often closely linked to nationalist parties is not concerned with teaching people to determine what is best. It is rather concerned with teaching people to agree with the liberation movement (Fanon, 1961: 145). Thus nationalism is necessary in the sense that it allows for a united opposition. It must however give way to humanism in politics as soon as independence has been gained (Fanon, 1961: 165).

In the final chapter of the book, Fanon provides the reader with examples of the violence of colonialism. He provides various examples of how colonialism was either directly or indirectly responsible for the mental disorders that people suffered from. These people were both the colonisers and the colonised. In this chapter his fundamental concerns are emphasised again. His fight is against a particular system, not the people in that system. He demonstrates how the system of colonialism is dire for both the settler and the ‘native’ and seeks an emancipated and truly socialist future for everyone.

Fanon hopes to move into an emancipated future. It is this emphasis on emancipation in the post-colony which in my view makes Les Damnés de la Terre so quintessential in understanding the post-colony. The book allows the reader to understand colonialism as well as some of the requirements for successful decolonisation. Furthermore, the text allows for the reader to make sense of the status quo in the post-colony. Fanon is radically opposed to colonialism and in my view he is just as radically opposed to the postcolonial situation. This is why he urges the reader to “work out new concepts” (Fanon, 1961: 255). In order to do this he insists that we cannot look into the past and hope to find some pre-colonial African mode of being that we can return to (Fanon, 1961: 251). We must remain forward-looking. Fanon also warns against turning to Europe for the answer. A place that invents colonialism and violently maintains it cannot be looked to for an emancipated future (Fanon, 1961: 251). Our starting point must be acknowledging that “the masses are [capable] of governing themselves” (Fanon, 1961: 151). If this is our point of departure, I am confident that we will be able to “work out new concepts. And try to set afoot a new man [sic]” (Fanon, 1961: 255).

Works Cited:

·        Fanon, F. 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books: London.

[1] The violence of colonialism, the violence involved with the process of decolonization and the violence that prevails in the post-colony.
[2] This is rather ironic in light of the fact that this statement is often made with reference to the colonised. The idea that the colonised is not capable of reason and only understands violence is widespread during colonialism. Now this idea is turned around and the coloniser cannot understand anything but force.
[3] This negotiations/compromise route was followed in South Africa in 1994. South Africa is in fact often held up as an example of a (relatively) peaceful transition from colonialism to the post-colony.
[4] This would happen due to compromises made by the leaders of the liberation movement (South Africa for example).
[5] The “native bourgeoisie”.
[6] Fanon wrote Les Damnés de la Terre with particular reference to the time he spent in Algeria. As a result his references to ‘the colony’ relate most specifically to his experiences in Algeria. One cannot assume that the things that are true for Algeria are true for other colonies as well (though they might be).
[7] We saw the dangers of defining what is South African in the 2008 attacks on foreigners. Till today the debate of who in fact counts as South African tends to exclude some people. In the rhetoric of some nationalists, white people or people from other African countries are not ‘authentically South African’.