The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is to recall a foundational dictum of Marxist analysis: “always historicize.” Though The Wretched of the Earth explicitly rebuts the traditional Marxist notion that the emancipation of all peoples can be achieved solely through class struggle, Fanon demands that we heed the particulars of the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as he uses the Algerian occupation as an occasion to reflect on colonialism, pan-African nationalism, and liberatory politics more broadly. This article is too short to provide a representative account of the Algerian War of Independence or Fanon’s involvement with that struggle, and I encourage the reader to research those subjects for themselves.
Decolonization is undeniably the subject and goal of The Wretched of the Earth. The question at hand is what Fanon means by “decolonization.” How much does it have to do with the psychogeographic emancipation advocated by many of today’s internet-based activists, how much does it have to do with the tangible struggles of revolutionary politics, and what does one have to do with the other? Lucky for us, Fanon provides a clear definition in the opening chapter. Says Fanon, “National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or the commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event.” Or more bluntly, “Decolonization is quite simply the substitution of one ‘species’ of mankind by another.”
So what are we to make of Fanon’s analysis of the Algerian War of Independence today? When nationalism is more or less synonymous with racism, when European imperialism has given way to the power of global capital, and when the struggle for decolonization has been forced to retreat to the symbolic terrain of the mind?
Fanon reminds us that while decolonized minds and art would be part of the world that those of us on the left strive to bring about, they will not bring about that world by themselves. “For the politically committed,” argues Fanon, “urgent decisions are needed on means and tactics, i.e., direction and organization. Anything else is but blind voluntarism with the terribly reactionary risks this implies.” And these urgent decisions demand that one heed the particular demands of their community and circumstance.
In the Algerian struggle against French colonialism, these urgent decisions included violent resistance from the Algerian National Liberation Army. And it is in the context of this particular armed struggle that we encounter some of Fanon’s most salient reflections on violence: “As soon as they are born it is obvious to [the colonized] that their cramped world . . . can only be challenged by out and out violence.”
Though The Wretched of the Earth may be most known for its opening chapter on violent resistance, it’s important to note that the heart of Fanon’s book concerns practical difficulties in bringing about a national culture in colonized Africa during the mid-twentieth century—reminding us that the work of coalition and consensus-building not only determine the tools necessary for any political resistance, but furnish them as well.–Caleb Beckwith