The Year of Frantz Fanon

What gives Fanon's thinking its force and power is the air of indestructibility and the inexhaustible silo of humanity which it houses, argues Achille Mbembe.

Still from 'Battle of Algiers' (1966).

Fifty years ago, Frantz Fanon passed away leaving us with his last testimony, The Wretched of the Earth. Written in the crucible of the Algerian war of independence and the early years of Third World decolonization, this book achieved an almost biblical status. It became a living source of inspiration for those who opposed the Vietnam War, marched with the civil rights movement, supported revolutionary black struggles in America, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and countless insurgent movements around the world. Fanon’s life had led him far away from the island of Martinique in the Caribbean where he was born a French citizen. He took part at the age of nineteen in the war against Nazism only to discover that in the eyes of France he was nothing but a “Negro”, that is, anything but a man like any other man.

By any means necessary

He would end up feeling a deep sense of betrayal. Black Skin, White Mask — his first book — partly relates the story of this and many other fraught encounters with colonial forms of dehumanization. But it was in Algeria where he worked as a psychiatrist that Fanon finally cut the cord that bound him to France. The country for which he had almost lost his life in the struggle against Hitler had started to replicate Nazi’s methods during a savage and nameless war against a people which it denied the right to self-determination.

About this war Fanon often said it had taken the look of an authentic genocide. Having sided with the Algerian people, France disowned him. He had betrayed the nation. He became an enemy and long after his death, France treated him as such.

For those committed to the cause of oppressed people or fighting for racial justice, his name nevertheless remained not only a sign of hope, but also an injunction to rise up. Indeed to Fanon we owe the idea that in every human being there is something indomitable which no domination — no matter in what form — can eliminate, contain nor suppress, or at least completely.

Fanon tried to grasp how this “something” could be reanimated and brought back to life under conditions of subjugation.

He argued that this irrepressible and relentless pursuit of freedom required the mobilization of all life reserves. It drew the human subject into a fight to the death — a fight he was called upon to assume as his own task, one he could not delegate to others.

Fanon was also convinced that colonialism was a force animated at its core by a genocidal drive.

To destroy colonialism could only be ensured by violent means, an “absolute praxis” whose goal was to produce life and to free the world from the burden of race.

Post-liberation culture and politics

His diagnosis of life after colonialism was uncompromising.

For him, there was a distinct possibility that post-liberation culture and politics might take the road of retrogression if not tragedy. The project of national liberation might turn into a crude, empty shell; the nation might be passed over for the race, and the tribe might be preferred to the state.

He believed that the liberation struggle had not healed the injuries and trauma that were the true legacy of colonialism.

After liberation, the native élite had been ensconced in intellectual laziness and cowardice. In its will to imitation and its inability to invent anything of its own, the native bourgeoisie had assimilated the most corrupt forms of colonialist and racist thought.

Afflicted with precocious senility, the educated classes were stuck in a great procession of corruption.

The innermost vocation of the new ruling class seemed to be part of the racket or the loot. It had annexed state power for its own profit and transformed the former liberation movement into a trade union of individual interests while making itself into a screen between the masses and their leaders.

Fanon was equally scornful of nationalization which he saw not as a genuine mechanism to build a national economy but as a scandalous, speedy and pitiless form of enrichment.

He warned against the descent of the urban unemployed masses into lumpen-violence. As soon as the struggle is over, he argued, they start a fight against non-national Africans. From nationalism they pass to chauvinism, negrophobia and finally to racism. They are quick to insist that foreign Africans go home to their country. They burn their shops, wreck their street stalls and spill their blood on the city’s pavements and in the shantytowns.

Surveying the postcolony, Fanon could only see a coming nightmare – an indigenous ruling class luxuriating in the delicious depravities of the Western bourgeoisie, addicted to rest and relaxation in pleasure resorts, casinos and beaches, spending large sums on display, on cars, watches, shoes and foreign labels.

In his post-liberation nightmare, he could distinctly see stupidity parading as leadership, patriarchy turning women into wives, vulgarity going hand in hand with the corruption of the mind and of the flesh, all in the midst of hilarity and demobilization.

The spectacle of Africans representing themselves to the world as the archetype of stupidity, brutality and profligacy, he confided, made him angry and sick at heart.

To read Fanon today means to translate into the language of our times the major questions that forced him to stand up, to break away from his roots, and to walk with others, companions on a new road which the colonized had to trace on their own, by their own creativity, with their indomitable will.

All around us, it is easy to see elements of his nightmare. Globally, new forms of colonial warfare and occupation are taking shape, with their share of counter-insurgent tactics and torture, Delta camps, secret prisons, and their mixture of militarism and plundering of far-away resources.

New forms of social Apartheid and structural destitution have replaced the old colonial divisions. As a result of global processes of accumulation by dispossession, deep inequities are being entrenched by an ever more brutal economic system. The ability of many to remain masters of their own lives is once again tested to the limits.

No wonder under such conditions, many are not only willing to invoke once again Frantz Fanon’s heretic name, his sparkling, volcanic and exploding face. They are willing to stand up and rise again.

I myself have been attracted to Fanon’s name and voice because both have the brightness of metal. His is a metamorphic thought, animated by an indestructible will to live. What gives this metallic thinking its force and power is the air of indestructibility and the inexhaustible silo of humanity which it houses.

  • Four moments that stirred heated debate in France this year were the cases against rapper Youssoupha and IMF Head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the unveiling of the Paris exhibition Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage, curated by former French footballer Lilian Thuram, and the 50th anniversary of Frantz Fanon’s death. With the latter came the publication in French of Fanon’s Œuvres (La Découverte, 800 p.), with a preface by Achille Mbembe (‘L’universalité de Frantz Fanon’). When we approached Mbembe for an English version of the text, he sent us the following shorter essay — which we offered to translate from the original French.Translation by Oumar Ba and Lina Benabdullah.

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