Saturday, 10 May 2014

Response to 'A Dying Colonialism'

Kyla Hazell

It is essential, in reading A Dying Colonialism, to give serious consideration to Fanon’s purpose in writing the book. Argentinian journalist Adolfo Gilly’s introduction to the text is elucidating in this regard. He describes Fanon’s intention as being “to go to the essentials” and show the spirit of the struggle, the initiative and capacity of the Algerians, and the extent of their commitment to liberation – a commitment which carries them even to the point of altering their own modes of existence where it is found that those do not accord with the fight for freedom (Fanon, 1959: 2). By discussing the wearing of the veil, the rejection of transistor radios, and the distrust of Western medicine (Fanon, 1959: 121), Fanon demonstrates more than simply the rational inner dialogue of a colonially objectified and oppressed people, but also a deep commitment to action and, most significantly, a message of inevitability: to France, he says that the Revolution is already won. This short essay will discuss Fanon’s project with reference to Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the role it plays in revolutionary struggle. Though the fact of direct coercive rule by the colonial power may seem to exclude notions of hegemony, it will be argued that A Dying Colonialism validates Gramsci’s argument about the role of hegemony in revolutionary struggles and that the underlying thread of Gramscian thought throughout the book might have affected its receipt in France, the country to which much of its message was directed. Furthermore, it will be contended that Fanon’s description of the French failure to establish true hegemony in pre-Revolutionary Algeria points towards certain limitations of Gramsci’s idea when applied in the colonial context.

Fanon shows how struggle latently manifested in the Algerian consciousness long before the Revolution (Fanon, 1959: 1). Throughout the narrative, the key to the Algerian’s decisions is resisting oppression. Hegemony, in Gramsci’s view, refers to political leadership which is grounded in the consent of the led secured by spreading a dominant class’s worldview (Bates, 1975: 352). The success of a particular class’s ability to establish hegemony is measured by their ability to attain the voluntary agreement of the masses to their rule. Regimes which fail to establish this will traditionally resort to force in order to maintain control (Bates, 1975: 353). A Dying Colonialism shows how the French government failed to successfully proliferate its values and worldview. The latent resistance of the Algerian people in refusing to buy radios or use Western medicine and their attitude towards those who chose to take on Western modes of dress demonstrates a mass of people unconvinced by the rhetoric of their rulers. This lack of “spontaneous consent” also in part accounts for the incredible violence displayed by the French colonial government and described by Fanon. Bates (1975: 360) describes how Gramsci believes a certain political passivity will prevail where people remain oppressed by a worldview that does not accord with their interests or experience. This puts them in an ambivalent position and renders them without the conceptual tools to take appropriate action (Femia, 1975: 268). A Dying Colonialism shows that the Algerian people recognised and rejected the ideas of the French which dominated messages in the media, education, and other institutions (Fanon, 1959: 65). This will be unpacked further below, but for now accepted as a sign that the French had limited success in establishing hegemony in Algeria.

Fanon devotes much time to demonstrating how the Algerian people’s decisions alter during the course of the revolution as new behaviours and decisions become contextually more appropriate than their traditional practices. Through this, he shows a flexible, “modern”, and adaptable people. He makes it clear, moreover, that such a radical transformation of attitudes and actions has created an entirely new Algerian who will never more be bound by oppression. The book thus conveys the message that the Algerian struggle is one which can only end in liberation. Powerfully, he says that “The old Algeria is dead” (Fanon, 1959: 27) and that “the blood that has flowed onto national soil has produced a new humanity and no one must fail to recognise this fact” (Fanon, 1959: 28). It is in fact Fanon’s view that the new Algeria already exists for Algerians at the time of writing this book, and he explicitly says that it but remains for France to be convinced (Fanon, 1959: 28). By showing the hegemony that the Revolutionary FLN movement had managed to establish in Algerian thought (with the effect that they could “mobilize any Algerian at any time” (Fanon, 1959: 31)), Fanon pushes France towards recognition in a way that French society might have found more palatable for its apparent valorising of “Western” values such as individualism, freedom, and equality.[1] While it may seem incongruous to say Fanon pushes these or in any way reflects Gramsci as a Western theorist given that the book discusses the express rejection of Western values, I think it fits in with his actional intention to assist in French society’s realising that Algeria needs to govern herself.[2]

Fanon (1959: 5) says that what defines a revolution is not the armed action, but the social struggle of the masses which that armed action supports. This speaks strongly to Gramsci’s idea that “man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas” (Bates, 1975: 351) because it shows that the struggle is as much for legitimacy in the minds of the masses as it is for superiority in battle. The notion of hegemony in revolution highlights the significance of a cultural and ideological overhaul which invigorates society. Gramsci argues that because of the significance of hegemony, a revolution must first wage its battle at the cultural level and create mass support for its ideals if its eventual seizure of the state is to be successful (Femia, 1975: 269). Fanon’s description of revolutionary Algeria demonstrates competing ideologies fighting for purchase and his book ultimately shows that the FLN will succeed. The Algerian refusal to engage Western ideas (Fanon, 1959: 73) discussed above was less passivity than a form of latent resistance. Nonetheless, such latent resistance had to emerge in to action whereas before “The conqueror had settled in such numbers, he had created so many centres of colonization, that a certain passivity encouraged by the colonial domination made itself evident and gradually took on a tinge of despair.” (Fanon, 1959: 52) According to Gramsci, achieving a revolutionary outlook depends upon liberation at the level of ideology and involvement in the revolutionary struggle (Bates, 1975: 361). It is such involvement that gives the oppressed person a sense of their active role in a greater movement and generates a clearer self-conception (Bates, 1975: 361). This seems to be what Fanon describes in his account of the inner changes that different sections of Algerian society undergo in the course of the struggle. In his estimation “It is the necessities of combat that give rise in Algerian society to new attitudes, to new modes of action, to new ways.” (Fanon, 1959: 64) If the theory of hegemony stands, this loss at the level of ideas essentially dooms France’s desperate attempts to maintain power.

It is interesting to me that selected works of Gramsci’s were translated in to French shortly before A Dying Colonialism was first published (Thomas, 2014). If part of Fanon’s project is the conversion of the French, we may wonder how those already becoming aligned to Gramscian thought in the French Left would have responded to his argument. The 50s saw the rise of the “nouvelle gauche” in France, a precursor to the British and American “New Left” movements that were influenced by Gramsci’s work and the ideas of counter-hegemonic movements (Hall, 2010). The Comité de liaison et d’initiative pour une nouvelle gauche (CLING) was established in 1954 as arguably the first professed New Left organisation (although the term itself was only later coined in Britain) and then merged in to the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU) in 1960. Their agenda was very much based on prioritising a “cultural revolution” and fighting for democratic control of institutions like education and the media, core players in the proliferation of hegemony. Very interestingly, opposition to the war in Algeria was one of the struggles which unified the PSU until 1962 (Lucardie, 2008: 2). I imagine that this might have positively affected their reading of A Dying Colonialism which foregrounds the acceptance or rejection of ideas disseminated through institutions of the media, healthcare, and culture. Though the New Left was in no way a dominant movement in France during the period (so would have had only limited sway in the change of mind France had to undergo), the work of the New Left went on to gain currency in France in the course of the 60s (for example, with students in the May 1968 revolts) and so is not wholly insignificant.

With the above said, I think it is worth acknowledging the limits of Gramsci’s thought as it relates to A Dying Colonialism. In order to do this, I return to the discussion of France’s failure to establish proper hegemony in Algeria and consider how this provides a critique of Gramsci’s idea. The critique largely stems from the fact that the colonial situation is deeply racialised and based on a challenge to the black individual’s ontological identity (Mignolo, 2012: 214). This is a question that Gramsci did not directly address in his writing, but which fundamentally affects questions of knowledge and culture in colonial contexts. Hegemonic ideas must have at least some foothold in the experience of the people in order to result in consent. Colonial imposition inflicted such a complete affront on Algerians’ very being that this was impossible (Fanon, 1959: 49, 65). Excluded entirely from participation in knowledge formation on the basis of race (“Algerian society, the dominated society, never participates in this world of signs” (Fanon, 1959: 75)), Algerians recognised the invalidity of colonial rule. Academic at the University of Hyderabad, Arun Patnaik, argues in a review of the book The Postcolonial Gramsci that a true acceptance of Gramsci’s ideas in the postcolonial context must mean a championing of the Gramscian form of enquiry: one which examines a particular situation and searches for new modes of resistance to find “new forms of power and struggle” (Patnaik, 2013). Fanon acknowledges this in The Wretched of the Earth (1967: 39), saying “Marxist Analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to deal with the colonial question.” Thus, Fanon’s work, which while prioritising the active role of ideas in Algerian society also seems to intentionally bring forth the rationality of Algerian actors, goes beyond Gramsci and raises the question of how the notion of hegemony stands in societies where race continues to determine an ontological hierarchy of being, and due to the centrality of rationality in knowledge production hence also the issue of control over ideology. A regime that disregards one’s very being so insults the human spirit that it undermines its own legitimacy. The Wretched of the Earth, I imagine, might then deal with the question of how hegemony operates in the post-colonial context, where the sense of participation in the creation of society’s governing ideas legitimates the state in the eyes of the people, but colonial structures (which on a Marxist account will have an effect on social consciousness) persist.

By way of concluding briefly, this response takes it that A Dying Colonialism reflects the power of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in a way which might have affected French thinking, but shows that the idea can be taken further. Where exclusion from the realm of ideas is based not just on class but on race and so by implication ontology, new questions arise. An important message in this regard is provided by Fanon (1959: 125) in the book: “It is necessary to analyse, patiently and lucidly, each one of the reactions of the colonised, and every time we do not understand, we must tell ourselves that we are at the heart of the drama – that of the impossibility of finding a meeting ground in any colonial situation.” The fact that a Gramscian analysis finds some foothold in Fanon, but fails to go far enough should then encourage further thought and serious consideration of what makes colonial (and postcolonial) problems particular. This is part of what makes A Dying Colonialism so valuable – not only does it do actional work in demonstrating the unstoppable march of Algerian liberation (which at the level of ideas and in the minds of the populace is already fact), but it also does valuable theoretical work in highlighting new questions for study.


Bates, T. (1975) “Gramsci and the theory of hegemony” found in Martin, J. Antonio Gramsci Vol II – Marxist, Philosophy and Politics, Routledge 2002.
Fanon, F. 1959. A Dying Colonialism Grove Press: New York.
Femia, J. (1975) “Hegemony and consciousness in the thought of Antonio Gramsci” Political Studies 23 found in Martin, J. Antonio Gramsci Vol II – Marxist, Philosophy and Politics, Routledge 2002.
Hall, S. 2010. “The life and times of the First New Left” New Left Review. 61 (1): 177-196.
Lucardie, P, 2008, “The New Left in France, Germany and The Netherlands: Democratic Radicalism Resurrected?” available at:
Mignolo, W., 2012, “Mariategui and Gramsci in ‘Latin’ America” in The Post-Colonial Gramsci Routledge: New York.
Patnaik, A, 2013 “Gramsci and the Postcolonial World” Review of The Postcolonial Gramsci (edited by Neelam Srivastava and Baidik Bhattacharya, New York: Routledge)  Economic & Political Weekly (accessed via the Frantz Fanon Blog).
Thomas, M.  “Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s” published on Worker’s Liberty 5 February 2014 and accessed at

[1] Though it would warrant a full separate discussion, I found interesting parallels between a) the way in which Fanon speaks of Algerian society taking on modern technologies and realising, on its own terms, greater equality between the sexes or amongst family members and greater individual freedom of movement and expression, and b) the way in which ostensibly progressive South African legal theorists argue that Customary Law might not stand in such apposition to Constitutional Law on questions of, say, gender or inheritance, were it not for the fact that the Colonial government codified and so reified a system which had always been spoken and innately adaptable. While this is a very interesting argument, it does suggest that Customary Law, allowed to develop naturally in dialogue with history since the arrival of the West in South Africa, would likely have developed more equitable systems of inheritance and family authority. The assumption is then that these are desirable outcomes with the implicit message then being that Customary Law would have somehow “caught up”. It seems as though Fanon could be saying something similar in the way he seems to cast judgment upon certain traditional practices. If this is the case (and it would require further argument to establish whether it is or isn’t), one would need to ask why and how that fits in to the work this book does. 
[2] I imagine perhaps that The Wretched of The Earth might later provide the criticism.