A review of Peter Hudis, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press, 2015), £12.99, Lewis R Gordon, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (Fordham University Press, 2015), £28.49 and Leo Zeilig, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution (I B Taurus, 2016), £14.99
The last few years have seen a renewed interest among activists and within academia in the life and work of Frantz Fanon. The recent arrival in French of many of his previously unpublished letters, plays and writings will only add to this. Previous waves of interest have interpreted his work in completely divergent ways. Steve Biko, Che Guevara and Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton of the Black Panther Party were all inspired by Fanon in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1990s saw what became known as “Critical Fanonism” within academia in which Fanon’s revolutionary politics were downplayed, making him a thinker of “difference” and an opponent of a “unified theory of oppression”. The titles of two of the recent biographies under review, “Philosopher of the barricades” and “The militant philosopher of third world revolution” are clearly a reaction to this distortion. All three books skilfully mix details of Fanon’s life with his central ideas. This review will focus on Fanon’s major works on racism and decolonisation and his relationship with Marxism rather than the details of his extraordinary life, which can found elsewhere.1
Black Skin, White Masks
Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM), published in 1952, was originally intended as Fanon’s medical dissertation but was rejected by his professors for its unorthodoxy. It is both semi-autobiographical and transdisciplinary, engaging with philosophy, novels, autobiographies, poems, and psychological theory and case studies. The theorists discussed are similarly wide ranging, including Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Jacques Lacan. BSWM, like all of Fanon’s work, focuses on the experiences of the oppressed in the context of wider structures of racism and colonialism. The book details black people’s experience of racism both in colonies such as Martinique (one of the so-called “overseas departments” of France) and imperial centres such as France itself.
Lewis Gordon spends a large part of his book discussing this influential work; similarly Peter Hudis gives a detailed overview while Zeilig gives a briefer introduction. Both Hudis and Gordon capture important aspects of this work but, typically of studies of Fanon, they differ in the themes they focus on. Hudis highlights how Fanon saw racism as arising from the profit motive that began to drive colonialism and slavery. Fanon states: “The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white”.2 As Gordon notes, BSWM has many descriptions of the “infernal hell” of the individual lived experience of racism.3 However, as Hudis points out, this should not obscure the fact that Fanon saw racism as structural discrimination built into capitalism.4 Both colonies that practise legal discrimination and so-called democracies like France were described as “racist societies” by Fanon. Gordon, putting a Freudian psychoanalytical spin on the term “failing”, shows how BSWM documents different responses to racism and point out the various “failings” of these responses.5
However, I prefer to see these “failings” as “strategic”. In BSWM we get accounts of racism mainly based on autobiographies or Fanon’s experience of “assimilationist” responses to racism. These include black people from France’s colonies learning to speak French well, becoming formally educated, using psychoanalytical techniques and marrying white partners. These strategies of attempting to be accepted into a racist society or even to be accepted as white are shown to fail for two main reasons. One reason is that they do not take into account black people’s experience of racism—this is the case with many of the psychoanalytical theories mentioned. The second reason which unites all the failed strategies of BSWM is that they are individual solutions to a structural problem. Fanon inverts Sartre’s phrase from Anti-Semite and Jew when he says “I am overdetermined from without”.6 In other words, black people cannot avoid being seen as black in a racist society regardless of the “assimilationist” strategies employed. Some people have read Fanon’s descriptions of black people attempting to be “white” through marrying white partners as evidence of opposition to “interracial relationships”. But, as Gordon highlights, only when the basis of the relationship is seen as achieving “whiteness” is the effort seen as a form of failure.7 I would also add the autobiographical detail that Fanon’s partner Marie-Josephe Dublé-Fanon, who transcribed the majority of his works, was a white woman.
One of the most important aspects of BSWM is its discussion of Négritude. Négritude could be described as a proto-black pride movement centred around the poetry of black intellectuals from France’s colonies. Particularly important is Aimé Césaire who, like Fanon, came from Martinique and whom Fanon met.8 BSWM outlines the pride felt by Fanon as he discovered African sculptures or the inversion of stereotypes about black people envisioned as positives for example black people as being closer to nature or able to understand rhythm in a way white people cannot.
Both Gordon and Hudis suggest that Fanon, who was particularly influenced by Sartre, broke from him at this point; they state “Sartre seemed unforgiveable”9 and that Fanon felt “shocked” and “betrayed” by him.10 Sartre wrote a supportive preface to a collection of Négritude poetry, Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French that has since been known as “Black Orpheus”.11 Fanon accuses Sartre of destroying “black zeal”12 for describing Négritude as “the minor term of a dialectical progression”,13 from the concrete and particular term of racial identity to the abstract and universal term of the proletariat.
However, Fanon’s response is not actually a rejection of Sartre’s central argument, but an expression of dismay that he is right. As Fanon says, “I needed not to know”14 and Sartre “shattered my last illusion”.15 What Fanon does criticise Sartre for is not being Hegelian enough in neglecting the fact that each term of a dialectical progression has to be lived out “absolutely”.16 “Black Orpheus” itself is predominantly positive about Négritude, its criticisms being on a par with Fanon’s in BSWM although taken out of context; Sartre’s phrase “minor term” can confuse the overall tone of the preface. That being said Sartre’s phrasing of the relationship between class and race is a regression compared to Anti-Semite and Jew. In this work Jewish people are supported in living a Jewish identity and Sartre demands that the wider working class fight antisemitism. Hudis interprets Fanon’s anger at Sartre skipping over Négritude to mean that in trying to achieve a world without racism “any effort to reach such a goal by skipping over the particular demands, struggles and subjectivites of specific forces of revolt” would be a dead end.17
BSWM ends with a call to revolutionary action to destroy racism. Fanon challenges the idea that there is anything essential about a person’s “race” stating “there is no Negro mission, there is no white man’s burden”.18 He looks forward to the day when there will be “mutual recognition” among black and white people, the day when the struggles of black people in America result in a “majestic” “monument” of a “white man and a black man hand in hand”.19 He references the Viet-Minh’s statement in their fight against French colonialism that has more recently become famous through the Black Lives Matter movement: “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe”.20
Fanon sees the cultural pride of Négritude as a first step in fighting racism; however, he ultimately rejects it for reinforcing stereotypes about black people. He is fighting for a world in which black people are recognised as humans. Fanon says “it is the racist who creates his inferior” just as the antisemite creates the Jew in Sartre’s work.21 Zeilig sees a tension between individual and collective strategies within BSWM; he reads the phrase “I am my own foundation” as a sign of individualistic solutions. The phrase, however, means Fanon does not want to be trapped into being a “black” person with essential characteristics as defined by a racist society. It is clear that Fanon sees collective struggle as the only way to fight racism. What form this collective struggle would take only becomes apparent with Fanon’s critical involvement in anti-colonial struggle within Algeria.
Studies in a Dying Colonialism (originally published in French as Year Five of the Algerian Revolution) is a lesser known work compared to BSWM or The Wretched of the Earth. The work represents Fanon’s experiences as a member of and journalist for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who were fighting an armed struggle against French colonialism from 1954 until 1962 when Algeria became independent. The book was dictated in 1959 in just three weeks. Its central theme is how people’s consciousness changes in struggle. People join movements with a variety of contradictory ideas; it is during collective struggle that people become confident and open to new possibilities.
Zeilig highlights the importance of the chapter on the veil: “Algeria Unveiled”. Fanon describes how “servants under threat of being fired, poor women dragged from their homes, prostitutes, were brought to the public square and symbolically unveiled to the cries of ‘Vive l’Algérie française! [Long Live French Algeria!]’”, with the result that “Algerian women who had long since dropped the veil once again donned the haik, thus affirming that it was not true that woman liberated herself at the invitation of France and of General de Gaulle”.22 The veil was used as a sign of resistance to French colonialism. As the military and police eventually realised, women in the FLN hid weapons under their veils. Then they switched to dressing in “European” fashion to avoid suspicion when coming through checkpoints to carry out attacks. The book documents the growing role of Algerian women involved in the struggle and is clearly a rejection of the now familiar rhetoric of imperialist powers attempting to “save” Muslim women espoused at the time.
Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle meant he was well placed to observe aspects of what we now call Islamophobia. In an earlier speech he made in 1956 at the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists Fanon discussed the shift to cultural racism after the Nazi regime discredited biological racism.23 He talks about how racism has to “adapt itself, to change in appearance”,24 about how “cultural style” is attacked, blending “with the already famous appeal to the fight of the ‘cross against the crescent’”.25 Hudis unconvincingly attempts to portray Fanon as a critic of Islamism (which was not a dominant trend in national liberation movements at that point), stating he is in no way “uncritical” of the wearing of the veil and he would not have formed a united front with Islamists.26 The fact that the FLNs’ foundational statement in 1954 called for an independent Algeria “consistent with Islamic principles” is left out of Hudis’s account. When in power sections of the FLN encouraged Islamism from the mid-1970s onwards, the rise of which and the regime’s efforts to suppress it would eventually lead to civil war in the 1990s.
In Studies of a Dying Colonialism we see in somewhat exaggerated form the effect struggle can have on everyday life in relation to the family, radio, medicine and the veil. However, as Zeilig points out, we get little sense of the contradictions and difficulties of decolonisation. These themes would be taken up in Fanon’s most famous work The Wretched of the Earth, dictated while he was dying of leukaemia. Zeilig describes its scope as “massive” encompassing “the degeneration of national liberation movements, military coups, national culture and case notes from patients undergoing psychiatric treatment”.27 The overarching themes are the potential pitfalls that national liberation movements can run into. It is based on Fanon’s experience of the FLN and his tours of newly independent nations during his role as ambassador to Africa for the provisional government of Algeria (GPRA). Fanon described himself as a Pan-Africanist, seeking political unity of independent states and movements fighting colonialism. In the chapter “On National Culture” based on his speech to the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers he outlined the nature of this unity. He was against attempting to make a homogenous black or African identity based on culture: “there is no common destiny to be shared between the national cultures of Senegal and Guinea; but there is a common destiny between the Senegalese and Guinean nations which are both dominated by the same French colonialism”.28 Similarly, he pointed out the different problems Langston Hughes from the United States faced compared to Léopold Senghor from Senegal. He angrily noted the hypocrisy of those like Jacques Rabemananjara, a minister in the Madagascan government, who spoke about African cultural unity but voted against Algerian independence in the UN. Fanon calls for the political unity of those who suffer racism and colonialism, a unity based on struggle rather than a cultural unity based on a mythologised past or present.
This unity, however, does not encompass the capitalists of the colonised country after independence who are described variously as “numerically, intellectually and economically weak”29 or in slightly stronger terms as “flesh-eating animals, jackals and vultures which wallow in the people’s blood”.30 Fanon saw how the capitalist class could not be expected to lead a struggle for independence but also how they would be willing to make compromises with former colonial powers to maintain their profits after independence. He described the situation in which governments are economically dependent on former colonial powers as “neo-colonialism”. In more recent times the term captures well the role of the US in imposing IMF loans on African and Latin American countries in exchange for extortionate trade deals and neoliberal “structural readjustment” in which welfare is privatised. However, the term has also been used to let off the hook “indigenous” capitalists in former colonies who exploit their own people and weaker states—hardly an outcome Fanon would have been likely to support.
Much of the discussion of The Wretched of the Earth focuses on the chapter “Concerning Violence” and Fanon’s advocacy of armed struggle against colonialism. As Zeilig points out, part of this focus can be put down to Sartre’s over-enthusiastic fixation on the question of violence in the preface to the book. In line with his consistent focus on how people change through struggle, Fanon states that “at the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction”.31 He is in no way blind to the negative consequences of violence as is highlighted in the psychological case notes at the end of The Wretched of the Earth. His main mistake on this question is to have believed that a violent struggle against colonialism would make compromise with former colonial powers less likely. As has been shown by Zimbabwe and South Africa this is not the case. Fanon is more accurate when he points to the lack of “ideology” of national liberation movements as a central weakness. The struggles, sometimes fatal, within the FLN tended to be about control or tactical considerations rather than competing worldviews, their statements remaining vague on what an independent Algeria would look like. Was this call for ideology a call for Marxism? It is on the question of Fanon’s relationship with Marxism that Gordon, Zeilig and Hudis diverge the most.
While Gordon sees Fanon as a critic of classical Marxism, Hudis refers to him as a humanist Marxist and Zeilig describes Fanon “engaging” with Marxism. The accounts vary to some extent but most agree that Fanon was around the French Communist Party (PCF) and potentially Trotskyists in Lyon. One of the main influences on him as a psychiatrist was François Tosquelles, who was a member of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish Revolution. Fanon also had discussions with Jean Ayme and Pierre Broué, Trotskyists involved in the International Communist Party, and the anarchist Daniel Guérin. Fanon was said to have read the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Third International.32 As Hudis points out, Fanon’s work contains frequent references to Marx, particularly The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Hudis also notes that the other major influence on Fanon’s work is Sartre who was developing his brand of Marxism at the time. Gordon attempts to put distance between Fanon and Sartre with the “break” in BSWM, even describing how Sartre might have come across as a “white reaper”33 when he was at Fanon’s bedside while he was dying. Gordon rightly makes the point that works about Fanon often reduce him to the influence on him of white philosophers. However, his book tends to stretch too far in the opposite direction, downplaying Sartre’s and Fanon’s mutual admiration. Fanon, after being diagnosed with leukaemia, chose to speak to FLN fighters about Sartre’s book Critique of Dialectical Reason. Zeilig gives the political context to why Fanon rejected organisations of the French left. The Socialist Party (the Labour-style party) and the French Communist Party both voted for “special measures” violently to suppress the movement for Algerian independence. The Trotskyist groups were small in number, although one did support the FLN materially. The other supported the FLN’s rival, Messali Hadj’s Algerian National Movement (MNA).
Gordon explains that Fanon’s identification of the peasantry and the lumpen-proletariat as revolutionary subjects goes against the classic Marxist focus on the working class. Zeilig highlights the influence examples of guerrilla armies in Vietnam, China and Cuba—theoretically based on the peasantry—and the shift in FLN tactics to rural warfare had on Fanon’s views. This led Fanon to downplay the role of the working class within colonies, stating that it has the power to shut down the country but is bought off through its greater living standards compared to the peasantry. However, as Hudis and Zeilig both point out, the working class often did play a key role, for example in overthrowing colonialism in Nigeria and apartheid in South Africa. Furthermore, Algerian independence came on the back of protests and riots by the Algerian working class.
Fanon’s version of “New Humanism” represents a mix of ideas. He both rejects the free market and criticises nationalisation for changing one elite for another. Instead he favours direct democracy as based on rural communities. Zeilig’s work is the strongest on Fanon’s relationship with Marxism, placing it in historical context without being uncritical. Zeilig’s book draws on Tony Cliff’s concept of “deflected permanent revolution”, which is crucial to understanding how the high hopes of decolonisation often resulted in undemocratic and unequal regimes.
All three biographies add to our understanding of Fanon’s life and work. Gordon presents an illuminating account of Fanon’s life and BSWM from a psychoanalytical perspective. He engages with other works and interpretations in a useful way. As with many of Fanon’s readers, Gordon uses a more orthodox psychoanalytical approach than Fanon used in BSWM, for example. Occasionally this can lead to speculation about Fanon’s motives which can be jarring.
Hudis’s and Zeilig’s accounts are better places to start for those less familiar with Fanon’s life and work. Hudis describes Fanon’s main philosophical influences as Hegel, Sartre and Marx. As Mercier points out sometimes this can be reductionist, for example when he attempts to fit the structure of the argument of BSWM into the “Hegelian” schema of singular-particular-universal.34 All of the biographers neglect the fact that Fanon’s version of Hegel is based on Alexandre Kojève’s reading of the master/slave dialectic in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Zeilig puts Fanon in historical and political context utilising the Marxist tradition associated with this journal. From South Africa to France and Britain, activists are again making use of Fanon’s work and taking inspiration from his revolutionary life. All three books show that Fanon has many lessons for movements against racism, imperialism and capitalism for today.
1 Zeilig, 2012.
2 Fanon, 2008, p156.
3 Gordon, 2015.
4 Hudis, 2015.
5 Gordon, 2015.
6 Fanon, 2008, p87.
7 Gordon, 2015, p35.
8 Zeilig, 2016.
9 Gordon, 2015 p57.
10 Hudis, 2015, p49.
11 Sartre, 1951.
12 Fanon, 2008, p103.
13 Fanon, 2008, p101.
14 Fanon, 2008, p103.
15 Fanon, 2008, p105.
16 Hudis, 2015, p45.
17 Hudis, 2015, p54.
18 Fanon, 2008, p178.
19 Fanon, 2008, p173.
20 Fanon, 2008, p176.
21 Fanon, 2008, p69.
22 Fanon, 1989, p62.
23 Fanon, 1967, p29.
24 Fanon, 1967, p32.
25 Fanon, 1967, p33.
26 Hudis, 2015.
27 Zeilig, 2016, p180.
28 Fanon, 2001, p188.
29 Fanon, 2001, p142.
30 Fanon, 2001, p154.
31 Fanon, 2001, p74.
32 Jean Ayme the Trotskyist gave him the transcripts. They “reportedly held a great fasciniation for Fanon”—Hudis, 2015, p79.
33 Gordon, 2015, p134.
34 Mercier, 2016.