Frantz Fanon 50 Years On

On 6 December 2011, 50 years will have passed since the death of Frantz Fanon. Around the world people are getting together in universities, trade union offices, shack settlements, prisons, church halls, and other places where people try to think together, to reflect on the meaning of an extraordinary man for us and our struggles here and now.

Fanon was born in Martinique in the French Caribbean in 1925. The island had been colonised by the French who exterminated the indigenous population and brought in slaves from Africa and indentured workers from India to grow sugar cane. Fanon’s political awakening began as a 14 year old when, in 1939, he had the astonishing good fortune to have Aim? C?saire, a great poet and anti-colonial intellectual, as a high school teacher. The next year 5,000 French sailors loyal to the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in France descended on the island and black Martinicans, who had often thought of themselves as French, had to confront their sudden envelopment by an aggressive, crass and often drunken racism. The teenage Fanon surprised his friends by leaping into action when he came across French sailors beating one of his countrymen and he surprised some of them again when, at the age of 17, he escaped the island to join the Free French Forces in their fight against fascism. One of Fanon’s teachers had warned the boys in his class that a war between whites was not their struggle. Fanon dismissed him as a bastard and told his friends that ‘in any time and in any place that liberty is threatened, I will commit to it.’

But the Free French Forces did not offer the same commitment to its black soldiers. Fanon was awarded the Croix de guerre for heroism in battle but black soldiers were always treated as second class and were even denied their place on the field of final victory.

After the war Fanon studied medicine in France where he specialised in psychiatry. He published his first book, ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, in 1952, at the age of 27. The book deals with the lived experience of being black in an anti-black world. It begins in Martinique and moves to France examining language, sexual desire, embodied presence in the world, psychology and the politics of recognition in the light of the social fact that blackness assumes in a racist society. It is an extraordinarily book, simultaneously beautiful and searing, that sustains an absolute fidelity to an idea of humanity as freedom. Fanon submitted the text to his university examiners. But academics are often more committed to the organised stultification of the intelligence of young people than to any real attempt at encouraging its free flourishing and the work was rejected out of hand. His publishers were concerned about some aspects of his declarative poetic style but, when challenged on a particular point, he famously retorted that ‘I cannot explain the phrase more fully. I try, when I write such things, to touch the nerves of my reader. That’s to say irrationally, almost sensually’. It’s now widely recognised amongst serious academics that racism has been fundamental to the constitution of the modern world and that ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ is one of the great books of the modern world.

In 1953 Fanon took up a post at a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria. His colleague Alice Cherki, who would become his comrade and biographer, recalls that the racism of white Algeria was ‘habitual; it was unperturbed, understood, and viewed as entirely natural.’ Moreover the hospital was run more like a prison than a place where people were healed. Fanon immediately had the patients unchained and he tried to organise the hospital as a therapeutic community. In November 1954 an anti-colonial insurrection began and Fanon began covertly working with the Algerian national liberation movement, the FLN, early in the following year. Two years later he wrote a letter of resignation from the hospital declaring, in effect, that colonial society was more insane than his patients. He was given 48 hours to leave the country and went into exile in Tunis where he edited the newspaper produced by the Algerian national liberation movement and continued to work as a doctor. In 1959 he wrote ‘A Dying Colonialism’, a book that examines the way in which struggle renders culture dynamic. The best-known chapter in the book looks at the changing role of the veil in the struggle against colonialism.

In 1960 Fanon was appointed as the ambassador of the FLN to Ghana and he travelled to many of the newly independent countries south of the Sahara to represent the Algerian movement. At the end of that year he was diagnosed with leukaemia. He immediately decided to write a new book, his last. That book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, was written in ten weeks. It begins with an account of the colonial city as ‘a world divided into two’, moves on to describe what he called the mutations of consciousness that develop as struggles against colonialism unfold, and then examines the crisis of post-colonial states in which the people that bought new regimes into power are expelled from active political life as former liberation movements become an instrument to contain popular aspirations and to organise and legitimate the machinations of an new elite more predatory than redemptive.

In Fanon’s view the promise of national liberation struggles could not be redeemed if national consciousness did not give way to social consciousness. He saw a second struggle, a struggle to realise what he called a human prospect, as essential. In his last book, as in his first, he retains an absolute fidelity to the value of human freedom. It was immediately banned on publication and Fanon was dead within weeks. He was buried amidst the last battles of the war for Algeria in a forest in the mountains that separate Tunisia from Algeria.

Fanon’s work inspired the black consciousness movement in South Africa, prison intellectuals in America and people around the world who wanted to think the struggles against racism and colonialism as well as the resistance to the new elites that captured and distorted these struggles for their own narrow purposes.

Fanon would certainly not have wanted to be canonised as an authority outside of the context in which he wrote and struggled. On the contrary he constantly stressed, from his first book to his last, that a living thought must always be an engagement with a particular situation.

But 50 years after his death our world is both strikingly similar and strikingly different to the world in which Fanon lived and struggled with such an incandescent passion. His remarks about the oil of Iraq having ‘removed all prohibitions and made concrete the true problems’ and the ‘marines who periodically are send to re-establish “order” in Haiti’ are hardly strange words from another time. His account of the degeneration of national liberation struggles into organised plunder is routinely described as prophetic by new readers in Southern Africa.

But while the political spring in North Africa and the Middle East, and earlier stirrings in Latin America, have certainly called some of the global quiescence of the last 30 years into question, we are far from the Africa in motion from within which Fanon wrote. It seems a long time since the likes of Fanon and Patrice Lumumba thought it perfectly reasonable to see themselves as part of a broad struggle to call a new Africa into being. Here in South Africa our great generation is passing on to be replaced by a mixture of ruthless buffoons presiding over an increasingly violent and predatory state and stolid technocrats who might commit to a policy review but never to liberty.

But struggle goes on and 50 years on Fanon still calls us to be present in struggle, in that social space in which ordinary women and men can call things into question and assume the force and reason of real political agency.

Since the passing of ?douard Glissant in February this year it seems fair to say that Patrick Chamoiseau, the extraordinarily inventive novelist, is probably the most highly regard contemporary Martinican intellectual. In his best-known work, Texaco, he writes of a ‘proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through embers.’ It’s on this path, a path that is often literally made through embers, along with bullets, bullets fired by the state, and plastic bags full of diarrhoea, that Fanon’s fidelity to humanity, to all of humanity, must be reasserted by our generation with most urgency.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut and a columnist with the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg.