Sunday 11 May 2014

Critical Response to Frantz Fanon’s 'The Wretched of the Earth'

by Musawenkosi Cabe

“Fifty years ago, Frantz Fanon died, leaving us with his last testimony, The Wretched of the Earth. Written in the crucible of the Algerian War of Independence and the early years of Third World decolonization, this book achieved an almost biblical status”
“[The] Post-colonial nightmare Fanon predicted in [The]Wretched of the Earth has become our reality”

Achille Mbembe, 2011

Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a classical text on the conditions of the colonial reality. It is one of Fanon’s widely considered books; hence it has “achieved an almost biblical status” (Mbembe, 2011). The text provides a critical analysis of an overwhelming number of issues drawing from racial formation identity, colonialism/decolonization, narratives of the liberation struggle, language, nationalism and violence and the various ways in which it shapes and it alters the relationship between colonizer and the colonized. Before I attempt to critically engage the book, it is significant for this paper to contextualize the Preface of the book by Jean Paul Sartre. In this paper I will briefly look at the chapter “On Violence”, and will look at violence as a force for change, and as a tool for social and political transformation. The critical response will focus on the chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ This paper will also be relating the arguments of the chapter on contemporary times in an attempt to make them relevant and meaningful to our contemporary political reality.

It is important to recall that Fanon wrote most parts of the book in 1960 – when decolonization was occurring in most African countries. This suggests that, Fanon had a direct experience of colonialism, independence and problems that came with it. In A Dying Colonialism I was of a view that Fanon was at times idealistic and too optimistic about the liberation struggle. The Wretched of the Earth sustains his passion, optimism and commitment to the ‘bottom up’ emancipatory project, but Fanon does not blind himself to reality. He is equally critical of colonial reality; he warns about the liberation movements, that when they have attained independence they are capable of undermining their own democracy and liberation through ignorance and greed. Also given the complexities of the colonial struggle and almost a century of exploitation, newly independent countries struggle to function independently.

It is of paramount importance for this paper to note and clarify that The Wretched of the Earth is not necessarily ‘for’ the colonized as Jean-Paul Sartre suggest in the preface of the book, but it is an intensive study ‘about’ the reality of the colonial/post-colonial world (emphasis added). I find specific contents of Sartre’s account of The Wretched of the Earth in the preface of the book, not only to be problematic but also Eurocentric to a certain extent. Firstly, the preface by Sartre is problematic on grounds that it perpetuate the Manichean thinking that Fanon thrives to transcend and problematize throughout the book, the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’.  For Sartre, ‘us’ refers to a White or European audience, and ‘them’ refers to the group that has been subjected to wretchedness. Sartre writes that Fanon’s book “is for his brothers; his aim is to teach them to beat us at our own game” (Sartre, 196: 10). Euro-centrism thrives on the idea of the west discovering the ‘other’. The colonized are portrayed by Sartre through the trajectory of euro-centrism as objects rather than subject in the story of their emancipation and liberation.

The point I am trying to assert here is that, Sartre is wrong about the book’s intended audience. Fanon writes The Wretched of the Earth for a multi-racial and global audience from all walks of life. Fanon challenges the Manichean thinking created by colonialism. Some people might ask how does Fanon challenges this thinking, given the fact that the colonial situation demands a clear division between colonizer and the colonized.  Fanon (1961: 138) in advanced pages of the book asserts that “racialism and hatred and resentment - ‘a legitimate desire for revenge’ cannot sustain a war of liberation”. Fanon does not separate between the colonizer and colonized using fixed notion of racial essence. But he believes lived experience of European colonialism will compel people’s political choice, whether they identify with the colonizer or colonized.

Perhaps significantly in this chapter, Fanon talks about the importance of violence as a political tool, which can not only bring about fundamental change, but which also deconstructs the colonizer-colonized, master-slave relationship thus bringing in a change in the social structure from the bottom up. Violence is constructed as an empowerment tool which the colonized uses to re assert their authority and legitimacy at the colonizer. This notion of violence, as a function, as an instrument of change, or as being a necessary condition for the bringing into change, a new world for the colonized subjects, which would construct them as a people with agency, rather than passive subjects who are the receivers of powers. This understanding is interesting, as it leads to questions posed about the role of violence in post-Apartheid South Africa, and its meaning in relation to the marginalized communities?

The role of violence, especially domestic, in asking whether it could be related to the apartheid apparatus which sought to deconstruct the black self, and reconstruct in its place, submissive and broken individuals who resort to violence, especially at home, as a vicious means of communication and asserting order and discipline. And to echo Michael Neocosmos, why do events such as the 2008 xenophobic attacks took on a violent undertone, and the significance of violence as a signifier of dispossession, disillusionment and necessity in carrying the message home of discontentment? Thus one could postulate that if violence could be seen as language needed by the colonized to re assert legitimacy and right to existence to the settler, then therefore violence could also be seeing as linguistic medium in contemporary South Africa, which needs to be deciphered and broken down, and understood in relation to the broader society. 

Fanon argues that the colonized world is a world divided into compartments, divided into two, to cater for two different species (Fanon, 2001: 30). One could argue that this special divide, which seeks to establish boundaries and pursuit discrimination of the space, ensured that locations and boundaries were set up in which the colonized was localized and positioned, and essentially made to perform the role of a foreigner, in his or her own country. Fanon (1961: 187) is of a view that a compartmentalized colonial city perpetuates itself even after a successful independence. This transpires only if the capital city, which Fanon regards as “a commercial notion inherited from the colonial period”, becomes even more important and central to the economy of the new country (Fanon, 1961: 187).

Furthermore, Fanon’s post-colonial nightmare has become our reality in South Africa. Johannesburg is without doubt one of many cities in post-colonial Africa that is “a commercial notion inherited from the colonial [and apartheid] periods” and continues to perpetuate a compartmentalized space. Johannesburg is a highly contested space, it is a center of power and an economic hub. The problem, Fanon argue is when the new ruling elites move to the capital city and occupy colonial governing institutions. What happens is that the new democratic government duplicates the structure of imperialism, rather than changing it. Steve Biko just like Fanon, at the height of apartheid was able to predict that a change of governors without dismantling colonial and apartheid oppressive institutions will be an illusion (Biko, 1987: 149). Meaning if there is “a mere change of face of those in governing positions, what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday” (Biko, 1987: 149).In an allegedly democratic South Africa for instance, the state openly uses violence to silence the poor from their legitimate protest against corruption and service delivery.

Fanon suggests a radical decentralization of power that will compel the reordering of the colonial space. Fanon (1961: 164) correctly assert that “in a certain number of underdeveloped countries the parliamentary game is faked from the beginning” (Emphasis added). South African parliamentary democracy for instance, does not represent the will of the people, on grounds that it is inherently oligarchic, and that it subsequently leads to the technicism of politics from the public domain into the private, which is not accessible to the majority. Fanon argue that it cannot be ethically correct for 300 people to decide for the greater majority, “the whole population [must] plan and decide [together] even if it takes them twice or three times long” (Cherki, 2000: 157).

In conclusion, what I get from the Wretched of the Earth is that, humanism is a system of thought attaching fundamental importance on human rather than other supernatural matters. It is also equally problematic to normatively describe humanity “as purity of thought and rationality as thinking according to absolute rules of inference”, and then locate human existence exclusively within Europe (Headly, 2006: 7). This however, runs a “risk of confining and condemning non-Europeans to irrationality or cognitive underdevelopment” (Headly, 2006: 8).  We need to rethink humanity in a critical way. Critical humanism entails the rethinking of the problematic of being or existence outside the confines of western metaphysic of presence. Fanon (1961: 205) believes that "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." As a generation of a disbanded revolution in our underdeveloped countries we need to continuously question, challenge and resist the neo-liberal technocratic thinking and the legacy of “colonialism and also help on the maturing of the struggles of” our life time (Fanon, 1961: 206). For example formalized agreements between African Union and Europe Union, are generally assumed to be in the best interest of Africa, on grounds that the continent is impoverished, marginal and in desperate need to achieve “what Europe has achieved in terms of social and human development” (Zondi, 2013:10).  We need to problematize this kind of thinking by working out new concept of being. To advance our humanity differently, we will have to invent and make discoveries that are made with the people and driven by the people.


Banchetti-Robino, M.P. and Headley, R.C., 2006. Shifting the Geography of Reason Gender, Science and Religion, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Biko, S., 1987. I Write What I like, Johannesburg: Heinemann Publishing.
Cherki, A., 2000. Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, Cornel University: Cornel University press.
Fanon, F., 1961. The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press.
Mbembe, A., 2011. Fanon’s Nightmare, our Reality, date of access: 7 May 2013.

Zondi, S., 2013. ‘Afro-centric IR Perspectives: Decolonial Epistemic Options for the analysis of  African-EU Relations’,  African Voices in the New IR Theory.