“For the outcasts and by the outcasts”: understanding all of Fanon’s warnings

Issue: 182

Leo Zeilig

In recent months, Frantz Fanon has made a lot of appearances as the bombs and killing in Gaza have intensified. Fanon is written about in different ways to defend a variety of positions. First, he is described as a revolutionary who understood that we must support liberation movements and the methods used by those fighting against the Israeli settler state. Socialist Worker, for instance, was correct to state, “Fanon’s words were a rallying call for oppressed people everywhere to fight back by any means necessary”.1 The Algerian activist and writer Hamza Hamouchene makes a similar argument, seeing in Fanon’s work an affirmation of the right to resist by any means necessary: “Denouncing and singling out the violence of the oppressed and colonised is not just immoral, but racist.” He continues, “Colonised people have the right to resist with any means necessary, especially when all political and peaceful avenues have been stymied or obstructed”.2

Second, Fanon is also resurrected to draw out the distinction between Palestinian liberation and other “classic” anti-colonial movements, as if using Fanon was ever a simple cut and paste exercise. For example, in October 2023, Mark LeVine wrote:

If Palestinians are to defeat Zionist colonialism, it will likely take a much different sort of analysis of its violence and power than Fanon offered three-quarters of a century ago… It will probably require a paradigm shift in the core concepts of what a nation, freedom and independence are at a moment when the entire world, not just Palestine/Israel, is heading towards conflagration.3

Yet, LeVine’s understanding of Fanon is exceptionally limited, based on a crude reading of Fanon’s writings and stripped bare of historical context. Evidently, Palestine is not Algeria, but equally “classic” colonialism—whatever that means—was an extremely variegated phenomenon.

Central to LeVine’s challenge to Fanon is exactly Fanon’s strength: “Tragically, Fanon died in 1961, a year before Algeria achieved independence. He did not live to see the realities of post-colonial politics in Algeria; or across Africa for that matter”.4 As we will see, Fanon precisely understood the tragedy of national liberation. This was Fanon’s contribution, missing in almost all recent coverage. So, Fanon’s best work was also directed at the betrayals of the class of bourgeois nationalist leaders of the national liberation movement (indeed, he frequently applied the term “caste” to these figures to express the powerlessness of the new class of exploiters emerging at independence). His final book, The Wretched of the Earth, was not a calm analysis of national liberation written by an academic, years after liberation; rather, it was written on his deathbed, at the height of the struggle for Algerian freedom and national liberation movements globally. He wrote the book—narrating draft chapters to his friends—as a desperate warning about the curse of independence and the illusions of national liberation.

Fanon told us that we have to do two things. First, we must back the fight for national liberation, and its tactics and methods, including the violence of the oppressed. Second, we must also organise and understand the curse of national liberation if the struggle fails to break nationalist consciousness and national borders. If this is not done, national liberation will become just another story of state-led capital accumulation and class exploitation.

Fanon exposed the betrayal of the French left in the 1950s and 1960s, but he also understood the need to build an ideological and political challenge that could ultimately defeat the new class of exploiters herding liberation into sanitised capitalist (and nationalist) channels.

This article will briefly discuss Fanon’s ideas on national liberation, revolution, and both social and economic transformation. Fanon, and the almighty struggle against the French occupation of Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, gives us some important pointers on how we can support struggles for national liberation today, while also providing critical analysis of the pitfalls of that very liberation.

Fanon and Algeria

The Algerian War of Independence against French colonialism officially started on 1 November 1954. The first national liberation movement emerged in the 1870s. Now, a fresh struggle was announced; after years of compromise with moderate nationalist parties and fudged deals with the French, Algerian nationalism entered a new period. Though the “insurrection” was hardly referenced in the international press, the impact rebounded across Algerian society. Telegraph lines were cut and police stations attacked, but there was no indication in these relatively modest events would lead to hundreds of thousands of Algerian dead and pull in more than a million French troops.

From the start, the brutality of the Front de libération nationale (FLN; National Liberation Front) was never far from the surface.5 Its trade union strategy, for instance, was designed to marginalise the Mouvement national algérien (MNA; Algerian National Movement), a nationalist organisation established by the radical pioneer of Algerian independence, Messali Hadj, which had a real union base among Algerian workers in metropolitan France. The strategy involved murdering some of the most experienced and respected Algerian trade unionists. Why this appalling, murderous sectarianism? Because the FLN claimed a monopoly of leadership of the independence movement.

Though the organisations created to support the FLN, such as those in the urban labour and student movements, could take their own initiatives, they operated under the constraints imposed by the guerrilla offensive and “people’s war” fought in rural areas. Thus, these urban groups were marginal elements to a politics that had its distinct centre of gravity in the rural sphere and among exiles. The FLN was controlled by shifting alliances within Algeria’s intelligentsia, which was made up of relatively privileged members of Algerian society who had benefited from colonial schooling and scholarships. This worked against the possibility that the movements developing across Algerian society might coalesce around urban struggles.

French settlers in Algeria saw their project as civilising an inhospitable territory, but they also began to see themselves as a new race, not simply rootless expatriates or colonists.6 Though the so-called pieds-noirs (“black-feet”), identified themselves as French, they were not the French of metropolitan France, whom they disparagingly depicted as cold, effeminate intellectuals. By contrast, the pieds-noirs were celebrated in French and Algerian society as rough, big-hearted, virile and quick to react. Their association with extreme racism and violent colonialism meant that, after they left Algeria in 1962, they formed the backbone of the organised French fascism of the Front National (FN; National Front).7

In 1954, France was determined not to suffer another humiliation; Hitler’s easy conquest of the country in 1940 was a fresh memory. So too was the fall of the massive French base at Dien Bien Phu in French occupied Indochina to General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh, a relatively modest guerrilla army. France was seriously weakened by the resulting loss in Indochina, and its military and political classes smarted from the defeat; they refused to accept a similar fate in Algeria.

Fanon had recently moved to the colony to take up work as a psychiatrist and was acutely aware of the launch of the war on 1 November 1954. Gradually, the FLN and the war for national liberation provided him with the practice and action that he craved. Fanon arrived in Algeria as a rebel, but he left as a revolutionary. Algeria’s war for liberation pulled him further along the path he had already been travelling, but he also threw questions and doubts back at the revolution. Though he supported the struggle unconditionally (though never, as we will see, uncritically), he began to craft an understanding of nationalism, culture and political violence that helped shape a generation’s understanding of the limits of national liberation.

There was nothing predetermined about Fanon’s activism. He became a disciplined militant in a country fighting for its independence, remaining a member of the FLN until his death in 1961. After 1956, every significant book and article he wrote was for the Algerian Revolution and against the degeneration of national liberation.

The FLN, the Communist parties and national liberation

As the war escalated, torture became an essential element in the French government’s arsenal, often carried out by volunteer pieds-noirs organised in the Groupe mobile de protection rurale (Mobile Rural Protection Groups). One technique involved forcing a prisoner to sit on a bottle broken at the neck, with a soldier pushing down on the victim’s shoulders. Other prisoners were shot while trying to escape, a convenient way of avoiding “legal” issues and unwanted investigations. Those less fortunate were slowly tortured to death. Fanon became an expert in treating victims and perpetrators of torture in the war. His views on violence never resembled the clichés of his detractors, but were developed in direct confrontation with the daily and vicious violence of the war.

The aim of the FLN was always to create maximum unity across all layers of Algerian society—landowners and the rising petit-bourgeoisie as well as peasants and workers. Frequently, national liberation movements such as the FLN have become popular fronts, incorporating a vast array of contradictory forces with, according to the political scientist Roger Southall, “a significant class element…which was distinctly pro-capitalist”. The Algerian middle class, though weak and small, was disproportionately influential within these national liberation popular fronts. This, in Southall’s words, “predisposed them to becoming state managers, for only preferential access to the state could enable them to become a ‘proper’ bourgeoisie.” The influence of these petty-bourgeois nationalists within such movements made accommodation with national and international capital more likely. The failure of national liberation, once the levers of state power were transferred to an independent government, flowed directly from this dominating “class element”.8

An important factor in the failure of independent working-class politics to develop was the role played by the Parti communiste français (PCF; French Communist Party), which refused to throw its militants behind the struggle for national liberation in Algeria. This had the effect of weakening working-class agency in Algeria and, perhaps more significantly, weakening the chances of the working class acting independently of the FLN and thereby imposing itself as a distinct force with its own project of social revolution. Instead, the FLN moved more or less unhindered in another direction.

So, through the 1950s, a breach can be discerned between the PCF and its sister organisation in Algeria, the Parti communiste algérien (PCA; Algerian Communist Party). Though the PCA had formally separated from the PCF in 1936, they followed the political directives of the Communists in France in most matters. The PCF, following the logic of the leaders of the Soviet Union, saw the United States as the leading imperialist nation to be resisted, and independence could mean that the new Algerian state might fall into the sphere of influence of the US. Priority had to be given, therefore, to French politics and the elusive French revolution.9 In marked contrast, the PCA focused on the global struggle against French imperialism in Vietnam and Africa. The party boasted 10,000 members in the early 1950s.10

However, when the “insurrection” occurred in November 1954, the PCA was slow to support the armed struggle. The reticence of the PCA was well grounded. Resorting to a military campaign against the French would hamper the development of urban organisations and struggle, as well as further deepening the rural-urban divide. The party had already developed a reputation for organising strikes on the docks against the unloading of weapons, as well as encouraging an FLN boycott of tobacco and alcohol in order to target European farmers.

In 1956, when the French National Assembly passed the Special Powers Bill, which funded the war, it did so with a large majority that included the vital support of the PCF. The PCA was devastated, knowing that it would be affected. It is hard to overestimate the enormous influence of the PCF at this point, with its five million voters and political control over a trade union federation of a similar size. However, the party had long since broken with the Bolshevik tradition’s approach to national liberation, which regarded support for the liberation of colonised peoples as a key element of the internationalism of the Communist movement. When the bill authorising special powers was passed in spring 1956, a speech given in favour of these powers by Jacques Duclos, a member of the French Communists in the National Assembly, was issued as a leaflet and distributed to French workers.11

The PCA had begun setting up their own armed units, the Combattants de la libération (“Liberation Soldiers”), in the first half of 1955 as an attempt to formalise what was already happening in various areas. As PCA trade unionist and activists were arrested and targeted, cadres moved into the mountains with arms and provisions. The PCA political bureau adopted a new, combative slogan: “All for the Armed Struggle!”12 Though there was pressure from a minority in the party to dissolve and join the FLN, the majority saw the need for a “proletarian perspective”.

Initially, activists argued for a united front organisation that would give political autonomy to both the PCA and the FLN, but the FLN rejected the proposal. On 1 July 1956, the PCA agreed that units of Combattants should be integrated into the Armée de libération nationale (ALN; National Liberation Army)—the military wing of the FLN—accepting FLN authority and cutting all links to the PCA for the duration of the war.13 In this way, several hundred Communist fighters, mostly Algerians, were incorporated into the ALN.

Despite attempts to present itself as a monolithic organisation, the FLN was divided by important political differences. Debates raged on the character and problems of the Algerian struggle as well as the evolving strategy of French imperialism, including, importantly, the failures of moderate organisations.

Fanon and the French left

At the end of 1956, Fanon’s involvement with the liberation struggle forced him out of Algeria. He moved to Tunisia in early 1957 and worked with the FLN’s offices in Tunis. Fanon worked on the newspaper of the FLN, El Moudjahid (“the warrior”), and focused his acerbic, brilliant pen on attacking and challenging the French left. Fanon felt frustrated by the French left, which he believed should have been a natural ally of the armed struggle and the Algerian Revolution, but often failed to be one. Fanon grew angry because he knew how important this solidarity was. His stinging polemics were an indication of how much he understood this need for solidarity.

Fanon’s polemical analyses of the left in El Moudjahid are worth unpicking. In the first of three articles, he traces the development of French solidarity. The early rumblings of discontent in the colonies prior to the armed struggle elicited support and solidarity from “democrats” in the colonising countries. The responsibility of the left was clear: “One of the first duties of intellectuals and democratic elements in colonialist countries is unreservedly to support the national aspirations of colonised people”.14 Yet, the isolation (and sectarianism) of the left prevented a wider campaign to explain the situation, and this “pseudo-solidarity” is “very quickly swept away by events”.15 As the struggle for independence in the colony advances and radicalises, solidarity begins to fragment.

Confusion replaced liberal condemnation of colonial excesses. The stakes were now raised. Solidarity and condemnation demanded something more; French leftists’ support for the national liberation movement could only proceed in tandem with condemnation of their own colonial state. The left-wing intelligentsia in France, Fanon argued, failed this challenge, caving into liberal denunciations of “terrorism” and “bombing”. With the bombings and attacks on civilians, “The entire French left, in a unanimous outburst, cried out, ‘We can no longer follow you’”.16

In a second article Fanon argued that there was no neutrality in the deepening crisis and war and that there was no innocent French person in Algeria: “Every Frenchman in Algeria at the present time is an enemy soldier. So long as Algeria is not independent, this logical consequence must be accepted”.17 The war for liberation, contrary to the wishes of the left and democrats, is not seeking “reform” but rather “the grandiose effort of a people that has been mummified” and now seeks to “rediscover its own genius”.18 One of the reasons why the French left, intellectuals, parties and progressive groups have failed, Fanon writes, is the distinctive nature of colonialism in Algeria:

French colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa, is based on a right to property, whereas in Algeria, from the beginning, relations of identity were affirmed… Africa south of the Sahara may have been decreed French territory, but never was it decreed that Africa south of the Sahara was France.19

France formally incorporated Algeria into France in 1848, with the same administrative structure as the mainland. So, Fanon is making the argument that French imperialists had claimed that Algeria was an integral part of France, not just a colony. Therefore, there was a distinction, he argued, between French colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa and the “relations of identity” in Algeria.

A third article argues that the French left’s position was a prison for the left as much as for the country: “France finds herself a prisoner of her conquest and incapable of detaching herself from it…of making a fresh start”.20 Fanon was correct, but also harsh. His generalisations on these questions were frequently wide of the mark. The French left contributed significant and widespread solidarity, political support and active involvement in ideological debates during the revolution. These important, though fringe, militants often came from the anti-Stalinist left, from small left-wing and Trotskyist groups. Despite their size, their contribution was significant. Fanon concluded the article with an acknowledgment of this support:

The FLN salutes the French who have had the courage to refuse to take up arms against the Algerian people… These examples must be multiplied in order that it may become clear to everyone…that the French people refuse this war.21

Fanon wrote in great strokes and broad generalisations about the French left and “democratic” intelligentsia. He sought to expose them—and the large and influential organisations of the left—because he hoped that they would come to their senses. In Fanon’s eyes, support for the Algerian Revolution was so clearly a requirement for any self-regarding socialist.

Neutrality was a sham, Fanon argued. He condemned both non-Communist leftists, who worried that a free Algeria would fall into the hands of the Soviets or the “Anglo-Saxons” (that is, the US), and the PCF, which feared the potential that the Algerians might have to hinder Soviet influence and advances after the country’s independence. The French Communists imagined an alliance between France, with a dominant role played a PFC government, and Algeria.

Fanon did not make arguments against the French working class, but rather appealed for solidarity and strike action:

The FLN addresses itself to the French left…and asks it to encourage every strike undertaken by the French people against the rise in the cost of living, new taxes, and restrictions on democratic freedoms in France, all of which are a direct consequence of the Algerian war.22

Fanon did, however, reject some lazy formulation that there was an immediate and obvious connection between the metropolitan working class and the Algerian Revolution. This position was often used by those who sought compromise and a negotiated solution rather than full independence and a revolutionary struggle. For Fanon, the connection was more complex. Colonisation was a totalising system of military occupation and oppression by a foreign state, “the organisation of the domination of a nation after military conquest”.23 French workers had to recognise this reality. How could they hope to free themselves without pulling aside the colonial mask and fighting the repression being carried out against Algerians in their name? The two peoples were linked, but not in a simple symmetry. The Algerians might achieve national liberation without the help of the French working class. The latter, though, could never hope to cast off their own oppression without damning their racist state.

For Fanon, racism and colonisation—and the ideas of superiority and inferiority underpinning them—trapped the racists, denying and limiting their own humanity as much as that of the colonised and the victims of racism. Fanon’s work at this time was an attempt at consciousness raising, aimed at the European left. There were signs of resistance to the war: the gradually increasingly unpopularity of the war in mainland France and the significant desertions from the armed forces. Such resistance would, Fanon believed, start to unravel the system of exploitation in the Global North, but only once the European working class stopped playing, as he described it, its ”game of Sleeping Beauty”.24

Fanon was disappointed and angered that what should have been obvious to the leading French left-wing parties—supporting the Algerian cause and fighting colonialism—was fudged and confused, often turning into its opposite. The PCF, a peculiar organisation, had seriously tried to recruit Algerian trade unionists, pulling many into unions and factory floor activity. For five years, the party even produced a monthly paper on Algerian issues, L’Algérien en France (“The Algerian in France”). Yet, the party had strayed from its Bolshevik roots, which emphasised support for national liberation movements as the prerequisite for Communist movements and politics.25 Now, it argued that only the achievement of socialism by the working-class movement in Europe could deliver freedom to Algerians. Algeria might win independence, but socialist leadership would come from the unionised, politically mature French working class.

When leftists outside of the PCF denounced the war, they frequently echoed the party’s liberal republicanism, calling for “peace” and insisting that violence on both sides must end. The ignorance about conditions in Algeria among prominent left-wing intellectuals, including figures such as philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir, was shocking. Claude Lanzmann, a French journalist, filmmaker and left-wing activist, wrote with disarming honesty of a trip to Algeria he took with de Beauvoir in 1954, a few months before the November insurrection: “Our innocence, our stubbornness, our tourists’ obsession with the beauty of the desert…our interests were inexcusably folkloric… It took me years to let go of stereotypes, to reconcile myself to the reality, the complexity of the world”.26

Still, it should be noted that de Beauvoir also took some excellent positions on the war. The real problem lay with government ministers Guy Mollet and François Mitterrand.27 They were ignorant about Algerian society and their ignorance cost thousands of lives. Fortunately, there were left-wing intellectuals who did know what was going on, for example, Francis and Colette Jeanson, who predicted the length of the war, the return to power of Charles de Gaulle in France and an Algerian victory. European “porteurs de valise”—the “suitcase carriers” who transported arms and money for the FLN—and some intellectuals also stood fully behind the FLN and vehemently criticised the left’s betrayal.28

However, when Paris-based intellectuals and organisations condemned “torture”, Fanon did not simply concur in an uncomplicated fashion. Torture was, of course, an indispensable tool used by the colonisers; it pulled in and corrupted French soldiers, professional military and conscripts alike. Yet, Fanon also identified and attacked certain liberal illusions that saw torture as an aberration—an evil distorting the morality of the French and their traditions of republicanism. This thinking, Fanon maintained, still failed to break with illusions of French justice and civilisation, which he rejected wholesale, writing of “the egocentric, sociocentric form of thought that has become the characteristic of the French”.29

What about the Algerian victims, he asked? The women being raped? The villages torched and brutalised? These “concerned” denunciations of violence and torture perpetuated colonial images of the faceless Algerians, their subjecthood obliterated by the French. Fanon argued that torture represented the regular functioning of colonialism, not an unusual or exceptional phenomenon. There was also a tendency, he noted, to reduce the collective revolution to narratives of personal courage and heroism.

Fanon expected more from the left. While in France in 1957, he hoped to witness a movement of solidarity across all areas of society. Instead, he saw apathy and disinterest or dilettantism from left-wing intellectuals. The left had to break out of the narrow frame of colonial and republican thinking, support the Algerian Revolution unequivocally, and condemn torture explicitly as a natural outgrowth of French colonialism.30

Fanon knew better than the Parisian intelligentsia (and almost anyone else) what torture meant. He treated victims of torture as a doctor, as well as perpetrators of torture; both who would be traumatised for the rest of their lives. Fanon also envisaged a much larger independent Algeria, which was also the vision of thousands of Algerian fighters for independence. Adam Shatz, writing in November 2023, explains:

Fanon’s vision of decolonisation embraced not only colonised Muslims, freeing themselves from the yoke of colonial oppression, but members of the European minority and Jews (themselves a formerly “indigenous” group in Algeria), so long as they joined the struggle for liberation. In A Dying Colonialism, he paid eloquent tribute to non-Muslims in Algeria who, together with their Muslim comrades, imagined a future in which Algerian identity and citizenship would be defined by common ideals, not ethnicity or faith.31

The key phrase in Shatz’s description of Fanon’s deep desire for a post-colonial Algeria embracing Muslims and non-Muslims is “as long as they joined” the struggle for Algerian freedom. This solidarity was essential—a prerequisite—for their own freedom from the vice of racism and the colonial pathologies of superiority and inferiority. These were not naive aspirations, but rather were widely held by different elements in the anti-colonial struggle.

To break the colonial pathology of superiority and inferiority, Fanon argued, violence plays a key role. Unfortunately, much of the recent commentary on his ideas have badly misunderstood his careful and nuanced understanding of the role of violence in liberation movements.

On violence and struggle

In some of the worse commentaries on Fanon in recent months, he has been used to condemn Hamas, which is supposedly, in US journalist Eli Lake’s words, “the Palestinian version of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis”:

Hamas [members] are not humanists. They are fascists. So, why is it that so many of our allegedly most learned citizens found themselves rationalising, defending and, in some cases, even celebrating the barbarism of October 7?

Lake “defends” Fanon by condemning “intellectuals” for their support of Hamas’s offensive: “Celebrating the October 7 pogrom is not solidarity with the wretched of the earth. It is a demented excuse for the mass murder of Jews”.32

Unlike many of his contemporary detractors, Fanon understood the huge complexities of violence, and how it can unfold into profound trauma that is difficult to rectify. In this regard, and only in this regard, British journalist Ralph Leonard was correct to write in the middle of October 2023, “Fanon’s view of violence is more subtle than either his supporters or detractors give him credit”.33

In Fanon’s last great work, The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, he developed his thinking on violence and national liberation. Written at the end of his life, when he knew he was dying, his arguments on violence are a series of hammer blows pounding over and over again on the same point—force is the purpose of colonialism, therefore anti-colonial violence is the necessary response. Once the colonised have committed upon this line of action, there can be no retreat.

Fanon tells us that the Kenyan Land and Freedom Party (popularly known as the Mau Mau) required each member to give a blow to the victim, thus immediately implicating each in the settler’s death. In this way, violence fixes the “native” to the struggle. The native’s violence is proportionate to the violence of the settler regime, even though there is no real equivalence because “machine gunning from aeroplanes and bombardment from the air”—both common in the Algerian War—go much further than anything of which the native is capable.

Fanon understood the complex issue of violence. However, we should not overstate the originality of his arguments. For example, Karl Marx (and Friedrich Engels) argued, more than one hundred years before Fanon, that socialist revolution was essential to human liberation because it was the only way capitalism could be defeated, but also because workers free themselves in the process of making the revolution. In Marx’s words, only by participating in a revolution can the oppressed mass rids “itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.34 Interestingly, Fanon found his own path to a similar perspective stressing the psychologically central role of revolutionary action and violent resistance.35 Fanon’s 1959 book, A Dying Colonialism, is entirely devoted to the revolutionary transformation of Algerian society from below.

Fanon emphasised the distinction between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. Moreover, he deepened our understanding of the undeniably transformative, or “recerebralising”, effect of revolutionary violence. Occasionally, in his political practice, Fanon did elevate armed resistance to the status of the sole “real struggle” that would “radically mutate” the oppressed. Nonetheless, in his last book, Fanon demonstrates that he was a subtle and complex thinker on how violence could reverse a profound sense of inferiority among the poor and oppressed. He never advocated violence as the prime political instrument. In any case, it is in Fanon’s critique of national liberation, and the caste of profiteers who lead it, from which we still have so much to learn.

Fanon’s critique of national liberation

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon’s towering final book, which was written in a great rush, he talks about a variety of nationalist “demons” and is never content to accept easy answers. Independence, when won, gives “more compensation” to the colonised, but has not yet given time for them to “elaborate a society, or build up and affirm values”. The new nation is set “in a kind of “irresolution”.36 To break the potential “curse of independence”, Fanon talks about the need to bring the world’s extraordinary “productive forces” to bear on the poverty of the underdeveloped world. The waste of the nuclear arms race could be used “in the space of 15 years to raise the standards of living of underdeveloped countries by 60 percent”.37

He also deals explicitly with the weaknesses of national independence and the necessity of raising consciousness. This vital element of Fanonian analysis has been missing in recent accounts of his work.38 Much of the material (observations and extensive readings) that fuelled his final book’s passionate anger and descriptive power was accrued during his travels on behalf of the Algerian provisional government, as well as his direct contact with the national bourgeoisie in the FLN.39

Though Fanon may have celebrated the Algerian Revolution, appealing for solidarity and support from the French and international left, he was not writing a book of FLN propaganda. In fact, he reaches his full height as an analyst of decolonisation when he turns his attention to the tragic limitations of national liberation itself. So, Fanon sees nationhood as turning into a curse: “an empty shell; a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been”.40

The reason newly independent nations quickly regress after independence lies with the middle class, according to Fanon. There may be other reasons—including the “mutilation of the colonised people by the colonial regime”—but Fanon’s main focus is on the utter intellectual and spiritual destitution of the national middle class that led the parties of national liberation. This class is underdeveloped and has none of the qualities of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. Its mentality is that of the “businessman”, not the “captain of industry”; its role is that of a mediator that wants to “keep in the running and be part of the racket”.41 This puny, impoverished national bourgeoisie should have put the skills it has acquired in colonial universities to the service of the new nation, but instead it set its soul on its own interests and avarice.

The nationalist parties largely mobilised simply on slogans of independence. Yet, on questions of economic transformation, they were ignorant. Fanon described their knowledge as pitiful, with only “an approximate, bookish acquaintance with the actual and potential resources of their country”.42 When national independence is reached, the “underdeveloped middle class”, without capital and refusing a popular or revolutionary alternative, falls into “deplorable stagnation”. In the place of large industry and economic development, it makes a cult of the “artisanal class” and “local” products.

In an unnerving prophecy of the reality of the post-colonial economy, Fanon writes how this class becomes fixated on the “old crops”: coca, groundnuts and olive harvests. The colonial economy also developed sectors and areas that were rich in copper, diamonds and other resources. No new industries are set up; colonial cash crops are simply exported as they always were, unprocessed. How resonate this reality is for those countries that continue to depend on these colonial-era cash crops today!

Fanon’s focus on the conceptual framework of the nation is resolute; for him, the “nationalist class” is failing to work to develop the nation. Nonetheless, the new owners of agricultural land will still double the rate of exploitation in the name of “national” development. The new so-called landed bourgeoisie refused to sink their profits into inventive agricultural techniques, instead adopting the paraphernalia of their Western colleagues: country estates, cars and the presentation of wealth.

The national middle class “waves aloft the notion of the nationalisation and Africanisation of ruling classes” in the interests of the nation. Soon, he argued, these politics trickle down to the working class, the unemployed and the small artisans. Before long, nationalism passes “to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism and, finally, to racism”.43 This situation springs from the inability of the national bourgeoisie to extend a vision of the world, instead “falling back” on old tribal attitudes and racial prejudices. This national chauvinism can morph easily into regionalism.

Fanon’s genius was to pull the mask off national liberation and independence at the very moment that liberation was taking place. Independence, he explains, “crumbles into regionalism inside the hollow shell of nationality itself”.44 Colonialism, once challenged by the mobilising force of national unity, “recovers its balance and tries now to break that will to unity”.45 Religious rivalries are exacerbated; in areas where Christianity predominates, Muslim minorities fling “themselves with unaccustomed ardour into their devotions”.46

Africa, which had been united for a moment in the struggle for decolonisation, becomes divided once more with undisguised racism between “Mediterranean” (read “European”) North Africa and “Black Africa…looked on as a region that is inert, brutal, uncivilised—in a word, savage”.47 In a hideous reversal, the taunts about Arab’s supposed sexism, the veil and polygamy, which were once uttered by settlers, now find new lips.48 This is no accident, but speaks to the national middle class’s accomodation to the most corrupt forms of colonialist thought: “By its laziness and will to imitation, it promotes the…stiffening of racism that was characteristic of the colonial era”.49 The native bourgeoisie has come to power with a banner of “narrow nationalism”, and it is incapable of putting in place even a “minimum humanist” programme:

Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty and national dignity. Yet, as soon as independence is declared…the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns that constitutes this national bourgeoisie. The economic channels of the young state sink back inevitably into neo-colonialist lines.50

Quickly, Fanon claims, the people will see the “unfathomable” degeneration of the national leadership and the bourgeois caste. The leader now has a central function—with his experiences of political action and record of patriotism, he plays the role of a “screen” between the people and the rapacious bourgeoisie, “a braking power on the awakening consciousness of the people”.51 Yet, for the mass of people nothing has changed. The national flag is no substitute for real processes of development. If independence is a shell, so is the national party.

The spoils of the nation and the demands of a hungry population are great. Increasingly, the party transforms itself into an instrument of repression and patronage, blinding the people with a fog of nostalgia and ringing them with barbed wire. The police and army become key levers, with their strength and power increasing in direct proportion to the stagnation of the nation. Corruption infects every layer of the state apparatus.

Fanon compares the new national bourgeoisie to gang members “who, after every hold-up, hides their share of the swag from the other accomplices”.52 Increasing levels of deceit and exploitation lead to discontent and deepening hardship. In turn, the regime in turn becomes more repressive. With the parliament either absent or irrelevant, the army becomes the chief arbiter. For this analysis, Fanon drew from both his own observations of African independence and his study of Latin America. He condemns the national bourgeoisie for learning “nothing from books”: “If they had looked closer at the Latin American countries, they doubtless would have recognised the dangers that threaten them”.53

Nationalism must fold out into social and political consciousness and develop quickly into a universal humanism. Only when men and women are included on a massive scale is “form and body” given to consciousness. The nation ceases to be the flag, instead fleeing the cities and towns for the country and the self-activity of the people. The only true government of independence is “for the outcasts and by the outcasts”.54

Fanon’s account of the national bourgeoisie is damning and brilliant. He travelled across West and North Africa, and he also knew the Caribbean and studied the history and tragedy of South American independence. In Africa he saw a continent that was beginning to stand on its own feet, yet already falling under the sway of the nationalist intelligentsia.

Fanon warns the reader about the role of the “company of profiteers” and provides very specific instructions to fight at all costs against the further growth of this “caste”. If these “profiteers” are allowed to develop and grow, independence will arrive at nothing; instead, the nation will stagnate and decay. Fanon here is the doctor identifying a disease that has, so far, been unable to triumph over the body of the nation. Yet, its symptoms, kept in check by popular control and mobilisation, will break out more fully at independence and infect each part of the body unless the disease (the “profiteering caste”) is eliminated by the outcasts.

Fanon brings in class struggle. The primary, urgent task of the new state is the struggle against the new enemies within it. National unity is a cover that conceals new and threatening realities. The post-independent nation must move rapidly to undermine the national bourgeoisie. Fanon is adamant that the national stage cannot be skipped. To overcome nationalism and “avoid regression”, Fanon insists a “rapid step must be taken from national consciousness towards political and social consciousness”.

Only with the disappearance of “colonialism” and the “colonised man” (and woman) can we reach for a global project of liberation. Revolutions for national liberation had to embed socialist and anti-capitalist politics (as Fanon advocated) into their programmes for transformation. The revolution could not be made after “national liberation” was already won.

Fanon’s work can be read as an attempt to give further life and autonomy to the popular revolt in Algeria (and those elsewhere in the colonialised world), build it up so it would be ready for independence, and to warn and strategise about the dangers facing it before it became too late. Brilliant though his contribution was, it could not substitute itself for the work of the FLN, which remained hegemonic until the end. Nonetheless, Fanon realised that the parties of national liberation and decolonisation itself were inherently limited.

Class, liberation and revolution

What social forces did Fanon see as the salvation of the Algerian Revolution and liberation generally? Tragically, the real heroes of Fanon’s final book are the peasantry. Yet, the peasantry, his “wretched of the earth”, failed to play an “independent” role or lead the struggle for national liberation anywhere on the African continent, including in Algeria. When this class was active, it was under the control of a radical intelligentsia or, in the case of the FLN, the exiled leadership in Cairo. Though so much of Fanon’s work is a clarion call for self-activity, and the “radical mutation” of our consciousness in struggle, he identifies in the peasantry as his quintessential revolutionaries. The celebrated French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for a time stationed in Algeria during the war, was scathing about this characterisation, writing that the peasantry was “unable to define their own goals other than in an emotional and negative manner…wait for their destiny to be revealed to them”.55

Fanon rightly celebrated the anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam, which was supposedly a peasant movement. In truth, however, it was actually steered by a revolutionary intelligentsia that seized popular decision-making and controlled national liberation with a ruthless grip.56 The peasantry was not the force Fanon envisaged. Like so many, he was influenced by Maoist interpretations of socialism, which focused on the central role of the peasantry in revolutionary struggle and harboured a deep mistrust towards the working class. Consequently, Fanon believed the widespread argument that organised workers had been effectively “bought off” with the profits of imperialist exploitation. The Wretched of the Earth hands the role Marx gave to the working class over to the peasantry. This demonstrates a failure to appreciate what Marx intended to impress upon his audience when he stressed the pivotal role of the working class and its relationship to the oppressed.

Beyond this misunderstanding of Marx’s notions of class and working-class self-emancipation, Fanon helped to promote the myth that workers constituted a privileged section of African society in the 1950s and 1960s. Even a cursory rummage through the academic literature shows that in each region of Africa—and, for that matter, the Middle East—the working class was never a privileged class.57 In addition, the actual history of working-class struggle in North Africa, and much of Africa, during decolonisation stands in complete contrast to Fanon’s description. Indeed, as well as propagating this dangerous idea of working-class privilege, he also pointed the supposed leading role of the peasantry and lumpen proletariat in the Global South.58 His completely correct hostility towards the PCF and Stalinism prevented him from developing a deeper understanding of Marxism.

In this context, Fanon also failed to see what was happening in Algerian society. Even in the early 1950s, it was the Algerian working class that grasped the notion of solidarity and internationalism; from the start of the struggle in Vietnam, before 1954, Algerian dockers refused to load war materials or even goods for trade to and from Vietnam. In 1953, dockers and building workers in Oran, Algeria’s second biggest city, led mass demonstrations against the attempt to cancel local elections. That year, there were over 220 strikes, involving more than 270,000 workers.59

However, this still leaves us with an important issue to resolve. Marxists do not simply identify the working class as a force that can win liberation; crucially, we see this class as uniquely able to shape that liberation in a world reconstituted by revolutionary practice. Fanon was blind to working-class agency despite the strikes and mobilisation taking place around him (including, notably, those in Algeria in 1960).60 Repeatedly, this power was displaced, marginalised and ultimately broken by increasingly professionalised armed fighters in exile, on the borders of Algeria and in rural “wilayas” (districts).

Yet, what remains mesmerising about Fanon is that he started to tackle the potential of international revolutionary change. Embedded in his thinking was the idea that national liberation would be a curse unless it became a permanent, universal social and economic struggle that could move beyond the nation-state. From the ruins of Stalinised Marxism, Fanon crafted his own path towards a notion of a permanent, global liberation. Our humanity can only emerge on basis of such total emancipation.61


Fanon is no timeless oracle, and he should not be summoned up, striped of historical context and, as is frequently the case, denounced for advocating violence at every opportunity. Nevertheless, Fanon does provide us with several important lessons, and he can be a vital guide if we understand him in the circumstances under which he wrote. One is the indispensable requirement for us to support liberation movements. Fanon supported the FLN, which bombed European cafés while keeping its top leadership safe in Egypt. Colonialism is extremely brutal, and the negation of the negation is often pretty brutal too.62

Fanon understood the deep paradox of the violence of resistance, which is that it is both necessary and, at the very same time, a curse. Suffering from extreme violence and inflicting that violence left both parties, though not moral equivalents, permanently marked. To use Fanon’s language, both were “mutated”. No emancipation—partial, flawed and uneven as it was after national liberation—could be achieved without the “equalising” violence of the oppressed. This violence punctured the settlers’ self-image as superior; it asserts, and to some extent reverses, the profound sense of inferiority in the colonial subject. Interestingly, Fanon was clear that, after independence, those colonising “jackals” who had inflicted the worst violence of the colonial state, and those who had suffered this violence would only be redeemed by psychiatry.

Adam Shatz, Fanon’s latest biographer, recently observed that Fanon’s “understanding of the more murderous forms of anti-colonial violence was that of a psychiatrist, diagnosing a vengeful pathology formed under colonial oppression, rather than offering a prescription”.63 Fanon approached all his political work as a psychiatrist. He viewed the consequences for both the oppressed and colonial torturer of the worst crimes as, ultimately, treatable in a clinic and through institutional psychotherapy. If Fanon can be accused of anything, it is his naive belief in the therapeutic power of psychiatry.

A further insight for today, which seems key to me, is that Fanon offers us more than a profound understanding of colonialism, violence and the importance of solidarity. Fanon was, if anything, a prophet warning us of the dangers, pitfalls, obstacles and curse of national liberation. His support—as a militant of the FLN—was unconditional, informing everything he wrote and did after 1956. Yet, it was never uncritical.

Fanon wrote Dying Colonialism in 1959 to celebrate the Algerian Revolution and the multiple ways in which popular consciousness was “mutating” under the hammer blows of mass involvement and activism. Extending this movement for popular emancipation was central to his last book.64 How is the popular energy of revolutionary transformation sustained after national liberation has been won? How do we maintain and deepen popular involvement after the major symbols and power structures of colonialism have been dismantled?

To these questions, Fanon answered that national liberation was a curse and the nation a prison that had to be resisted as soon as independence was achieved. Perhaps this was a paradox in Fanon’s writings, but he worked with paradoxes and wrote a text full of contradictions and empirical errors. These errors did not overly concern him—the central point was the warning. The national revolution had to move on immediately to social and political liberation. This implied popular transformation beyond the nation. Without this, the “profiteering caste” of nationalist leaders would replace liberation with a carnival of reaction.

Today, to think seriously about Fanon, we must understand our role in building solidarity for liberation movements. However, we will be neglecting a key task if this is all we do. Fanon also teaches us to sound the warning on national liberation itself, and the curse that it inevitably brings to life. Crafting this critical support is one of our most important challenges.

Leo Zeilig is a writer and researcher. He has written extensively on African politics and history. He is also an editor of The Review of African Political Economy.


1 Socialist Worker, 2023. I am enormously grateful for the important comments on an earlier draft of this article that I received from a number of comrades. Thanks to Simon Basketter, Ian Birchall, Joseph Choonara, Judy Cox, Iain Ferguson, Jacqui Freeman, Sheila McGregor and Tony Phillips.

2 Hamouchene, 2023. There was also a thoughtful consideration of Fanon’s complex and ambiguous attitude to violence by the London Review of Book’s editor and Fanon scholar, Adam Shatz—Shatz, 2023.

3 LeVine, 2023.

4 LeVine, 2023.

5 The FLN initiated the Algerian War of Independence shortly after it was founded in 1954. The party has remained in power since independence in 1962.

6 However, as Fanon himself pointed out, this characterisation did not apply to all settlers. Indeed, a minority gave very concrete assistance to the FLN—Fanon, 1989.

7 We should, nonethless, be cautious about claiming direct continuity between “Algérie française” (French Algeria) and the FN, as the real rise of the latter only came 20 years after Algerian independence—Zeilig, 2021.

8 Southall, 2013, p92, p332.

9 It should, however, be stated that the PCF’s main strategic aim in the 1950s was a revival of the Popular Front, which in practical terms meant an electoral alliance with the Socialist Party. That was the main reason for their support for Special Powers.

10 Zeilig, 2021, p71.

11 See Duclos, 1956.

12 Zeilig, 2021, p72.

13 Zeilig, 2021, p72.

14 Fanon, 1970, p76.

15 Fanon, 1970, p76.

16 Fanon, 1970, p79.

17 Fanon, 1970, p81.

18 Fanon, 1970, p84.

19 Fanon, 1970, p84.

20 Fanon, 1970, p90.

21 Fanon, 1970, p90.

22 Fanon, 1970, p100.

23 Fanon, 1970, pp93-94.

24 Fanon, 2001, p62.

25 This was not only the position of the Bolsheviks. Long before, Marx made a similar argument on Irelandsee Marx, 1975. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for this point.

26 Lanzmann, 2012, pp331-332.

27 Guy Mollet was the prime minister of a left-wing government in 1956-7; François Mitterrand was justice minister in 1956-7. Mollet’s government secured the expansion of martial law in Algeria.

28 For more details see Birchall, 2021.

29 Fanon, 1957.

30 I am perhaps too hard on the French left. There was a minority that did have some understanding of what was going on in Algeria and took some effective action—see Birchall, 2012.

31 Shatz, 2023.

32 Lake, 2023.

33 Leonard, 2023.

34 Marx, 1932.

35 The role of violent revolutionary struggle can be seen throughout recent history, from Algerian freedom fighter Zohra Drif’s bombing of the Milk Bar in Algiers in 1956 to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam and Hamas’s assualt on the Israeli Defense Forces’ Southern Command on 7 October 2023—see Grey, 2017. I am grateful to Iain Ferguson for these observations.

36 Fanon, 2001, p64.

37 Fanon, 2001, p68.

38 Pretty much everything that has been written on Fanon since the Hamas offensive on 7 October 2023 has completely ignored this central element in his work.

39 Though Fanon’s penetrating analysis of “the weakness of national independence” was highly original, he was not the only critic. One of the best critiques of Algeria’s national predicament at the time was articulated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard—see Lyotard, 1963.

40 Fanon, 2001, p119.

41 Fanon, 2001, p120.

42 Fanon, 2001, p121.

43 Fanon, 2001, p128.

44 Fanon, 2001, p128.

45 Fanon, 2001, p131.

46 Fanon, 2001, p131.

47 Fanon, 2001, p131.

48 Readers should have a look into Fanon’s extraordinary chapter, “Algeria Unveiled”, 1989.

49 Fanon, 2001, p131.

50 Fanon, 2001, p139.

51 Fanon, 2001, p139.

52 Fanon, 2001, p139.

53 Fanon, 2001, p140.

54 Fanon, 2001, p165.

55 Bourdieu, 2013, pp87-88.

56 This is yet another way in which the FLN mirrored the Vietnamese experience.

57 A group of relatively privileged trade union officials is another matter, and the role of this group in representing and stifling working-class political expression is beyond the reach of this article. I am grateful to Simon Basketter for emphasing this point on an earlier version of the article.

58 The lumpen proletariat is made up of the most marginalised and dispossessed part of society, including day labourers, criminals and beggars. For the best account of this period, and ”Fanonian” myths about the working class, see Seddon, 2009.

59 Woddis, 1972, p139.

60 Specifically, the extraordinary working-class demonstrations in the cities and towns across Algeria in December 1960 forced the French to accept that they had to leave the country.

61 Fanon sought the “hominisation” of humankind, that is, the process of us becoming human. This could only ever take place on the basis of our mutual recognition of one another’s humanity.

62 We must remain more critical than Fanon of the methods used by national liberation organisations, but we must also support these forces unconditionally. This is especially important today due to the relative impotence of the Arab working masses compared to their strength during the wave of revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. This weakness has encouraged a degree of uncritical celebration of the armed resistance practiced by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and other groups in the region. Thanks to Joseph Choonara and Sheila McGregor for their comments on this issue.

63 Shatz, 2023.

64 To explore Fanon’s entirely flawed and historically inaccurate understanding of agency and the working class, see Zeilig, 2012.


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