Some days ago we saw a sunset that turned the robe of heaven a bright violet. Today it is a very hard red that the eye encounters.
– Frantz Fanon, Towards the African Revolution
Grahamstown, South Africa
Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean philosopher and revolutionary who joined the Algerian Revolution, died of leukaemia at the age of 36 on the 6th of December 1961. His last book, The Wretched of the Earth, was published soon after his death and so we are fifty years on from both Fanon and the first major attempt to think through the limits of newly independent Africa.
Fanon was committed to a radical humanism that insisted on the recognition of “the open door of every consciousness”, on the same right of every person to be a person amongst other people, to come into a shared world and to “help to build it together”, and the need to always question and to affirm a “refusal to accept the present as definitive”.
In 1952 Fanon, dictating his words to his lover and comrade Josie Duble as he paced up and down their room in Lyon, concluded his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, with, amongst other declarations, the assertion that he was willing “to face the possibility of annihilation in order that two or three truths may cast their eternal brilliance over the world”. Almost sixty years on the truths that he wrought from a militant engagement with his world do illuminate ours. But Fanon aspired to be more than a haunting presence in a future still structured in domination. In 1961 when, rushing against his coming death, he concluded The Wretched of the Earth, dictating his final statement from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis, he asserted that:
What we want to do is to go forward all the time, night and day, in the company of Man, in the company of all men. The caravan should not be stretched out, for in that case each line will hardly see those who precede it; and men who no longer recognize each other meet less and less together, and talk to each other less and less.
The language is of its time. Fanon celebrated the public assumption of political female agency in the Algerian Revolution and affirmed, in the plainest language that, the danger “of perpetuating the feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine”.
In the logbook that he kept while doing reconnaissance work in Mali in 1960 Fanon recounted his arrival at the airport in Accra without, as expected, his comrade, the Cameroonian militant, Félix Moumié. Moumié had failed to keep an appointment in Rome before travelling on to Accra. “His father”, Fanon wrote, “standing at the arrival in Accra saw me coming, alone, and a great sadness settled on his face”. Two days later they discovered that Moumié had been murdered, poisoned, by the French secret service in Geneva.
Fifty years after Fanon’s death in Bethesda, Maryland, he continues to arrive in Accra and in Dakar, in Johannesburg and in Paris and Sao Paulo. New generations of young people encounter his books with electric excitement. But the intellectual who proposed and then achieved real collective action, who became “an element of that popular energy” calling forth the freedom and progress of Africa, continues to arrive alone.
Fanon arrives alone because while revolutionary nationalism defeated colonialism it has failed to create a human prospect. The caravan has been so stretched out that those in the front hardly recognise the humanity of those at the back. New lines of force, many policed with violence, separate those who count from those who don’t and those who are in from those who are out. For many people the Africa still to come is as far away as it was fifty years ago.
Fifty years after Fanon’s death there are all kinds of ways in which his work speaks directly and with tremendous illuminating power to the current situation in South Africa. One of the many aspects of our situation to which we can summon Fanon’s illumination is the need for us to affirm a politics of ordinary women and men, against Thermidor.
Revolutionary upheavals are usually followed by a period of reaction once the new elite has consolidated its power. It is not just new forms of popular innovation challenging the revolution from the left – the Diggers on St George’s Hill, the sans-culottes in the sections of Paris or the sailors in Kronstadt – that are attacked. Often the very forms of popular mobilisation that enabled the revolution in the first place are rendered unacceptable. The contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou calls this the moment of Thermidor after the constitution in the third year of the French Revolution “in which it becomes apparent that virtue has been replaced by a statist mechanism upholding the authority of the wealthy, which amounts to reinstalling corruption in the heart of the state”. He stresses that “the maxims of repression . . . expressly targeted every kind of popular declaration that situates itself at distance from the state”.
Fanon witnessed the first years of the African Thermidor, the moment when the “liberating lava” of the great anti-colonial struggles was diverted as the people were expelled from history, “sent back to their caves” by leaders who “instead of welcoming the expression of popular discontentment“ and the “free flow of ideas” proclaim that “the vocation of their people is to obey and to going on obeying”. He posed a return to struggle against this injunction to obedience.
Fanon insisted that praxis must be rooted in the temporal, that each generation must confront the reality of its own situation. Our situation, speaking very broadly, is constituted by three primary forms of organised political force – party politics, civil society and popular politics. Although they often intersect they remain qualitatively different from each other. In the elite public sphere opposition to the increasing authoritarianism of the ruling party is generally presented as an intra-elite battle between contesting political parties and between the ruling party and civil society. The rebellion of the poor often appears as part of the background to this engagement, a phenomenon lending it urgency, in the manner that warming temperatures lend some urgency to the negotiations in Durban around climate change. The rebellion of the poor often appears as, to borrow a phrase from Jacques Rancière, another contemporary philosopher, a space from which “only groans or cries expressing suffering, hunger or anger could emerge, but not actual speech”.
The hope that these scattered struggles tender is uneven, delicate and altogether uncertain. But in a world in which, from Tunis, to Cairo to Damascus and on to Athens, Madrid and New York, people, ordinary people, are constituting themselves as a political force outside of the contesting elites organised through the professionalised domains of electoral politics and civil society what else is there to do, really, other than to keep going, to keep the free flow of ideas circulating amongst all of us, to keep on singing against the riot police, squinting into the hard red?
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University in South Africa.