Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique, colonized by the French, in 1925. Back then he used to perceive himself as a French subject and moved to France to study psychiatry, by which he later became a doctor. Only then he realized through racism that his identity was not in congruence with the French one. In fact, he saw a parallel with how deeply the colonial roots were embedded back in Martinique. He left France to practice psychiatry in Africa (Algeria) and this amplified in his personal path of becoming a revolutionary thinker and decolonial fighter. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of thirty-six from leukemia – leaving a legacy of knowledge and a major contribution in the liberation of Algeria, that came only a few months after his death. As a reader, you are well equipped by Zeilig’s analyses of Fanon’s essays and books. Leo Zeilig, Research Associate at Witwatersrand University (South Africa), has delivered a fine piece of work, including a lot of background information to understand the context of Algerian colonization, the liberation struggle and the transition of Fanon’s views from Martinique to France and from France to Algeria.
Revolutionary thinker and fighter
His brother Joby Fanon has described Frantz as having:
‘fireworks on the inside and fireworks on the outside’.
You can read this through the biography on pretty much every page. He finished his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, on his deathbed. With a deep sense of responsibility and justice, he identified himself as Algerian, speaking in terms of ‘we’; and standing in the forefront of a great uprising. As he became more and more influential, this in turn created space for threats and attempts to end his life. Being well aware of this fact, Fanon seemed mostly determined and on a mission against colonialism – nothing seemed to stop him. He would sleep only three or four hours per night to essentially use all his time to educate himself, think, write and spread knowledge through his passionate speech. Next to being a doctor, he was a political theorist and philosopher. The combination of these disciplines has brought to him revolutionary conclusions.
First, colonialism was only effective with the use of violence. In the case of Algeria, the French were convinced of the fact that Algerians are not capable of reasoning and logic; therefore, the only way to convince them was through violence. Fanon realized that, the only way to combat colonial power was by giving the oppressors their own medicine: i.e. violence. As a political leader within the socialist party FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), Fanon provided a sophisticated intellectual justification for the fact that only through violence national liberation could be achieved. In fact, Fanon stated that violence against the oppressor contributes to a basic fundament of group identification, as an armed struggle starts with the mobilization of people for a common goal.
A second essential conclusion Fanon drew, derived from his work as a psychiatrist. Treating both the tortured and the torturers, he realized that the oppressors were chained as they rationally switched off their natural humanity.
Thirdly, Fanon seemed aware of the power of classism (or the bourgeoisie) and its potential detrimental effect in sustaining the liberation after independence. He stated:
‘Colonialism and its derivatives do not, as a matter of fact, constitute the present enemies of Africa. In a short time, this continent will be liberated. For my part, the deeper I enter into the cultures and the political circles, the surer I am that the great danger that threatens Africa is the absence of ideology […].’ (Page 237).
The FLN was divided and was partly ready to do business with France. At this point Fanon was literally running out of time while simultaneously realizing that the independence alone won’t solve the deeply rooted colonial problem.
The work of Fanon is of extreme relevance today – with regard to racism, classism, terrorism and on social revolutionary movements. Concerning the latter, we saw that the revolution of the Arab Spring faced struggles ‘after the revolution’ to sustain and reform change. We also find this in history for instance during the revolution in China (1949), Cuba in the fifties, and in East Europe in the late eighties/ early nineties. What happens after the revolution? What happens with the one’s who have been exploited? What changes in the power structures? These were concerns Fanon addressed brilliantly, as Zeilig quoted on page 209: ‘‘Fanon’s notion is not top-down but sees the movement nourished and radicalized from below – yet, the revolution will still require ‘leaders and organizers living inside history’ to take the lead ‘with their brains and their muscles in the fight for freedom.’ The national struggle must also be social – pulling away, as it does, the crude dichotomy of black and white, good and evil’. It is only struggle, what Fanon calls the ‘knowledge of the practice of action’, that can do this; without it, all we have after independence is a ‘fancy dress parade and of trumpets’, a few ‘reforms at the top’ and at the bottom an ‘undivided mass, still living in the Middle Age, endlessly marking time.’’
A silver lining in his work and what Fanon’s dream was, ultimately: ‘for broken and scarred humanity to be healed and therefore become human again’. ‘For unity between North and South’. For humanization.
My personal reflection
As I knew pretty much nothing about the Algerian liberation struggle, it has been enriching to read about it. Other than the awareness that comes with it, it made me understand a little bit better what the complexity is of imperialism and the struggle for decolonization. In all honesty, I was a bit flabbergasted reading about violence and that this, according to Fanon, is the only way for national liberation. But, I promise you, reading this book gives insights and highlights the relevance of self-defense in a context of dehumanization, humiliation and destruction of a social fabric through means of structural torture, rape and domination. Reading this book has also made me start collecting stories within my family, as I remember that members have lived in Algeria during its colonization. Quite shockingly, I found out that a particular member in my family, who unfortunately passed away, has been tortured by the French as an 18-year old; and his closest friends were executed in front of him. This all to collect ‘information’ over a betrayal, which none of them had anything to do with…So this book filled my pocket with a bit more knowledge, awareness and wisdom on many levels possible. A must read!
- Title: Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of third World Revolution
- Author: Leo Zeilig
- Published: I.B. Tauris, 2016
- What: Biography