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Few thinkers in the 20th century equal Fanon’s influence in both academe and radical-activist circles. For scholars, Fanon’s thought inspired what came to be known as postcolonial studies, but has also touched ancillary fields including gender studies, Black studies, continental philosophy, and psychoanalysis. “More than any other writer,” asserts Adam Shatz in his engrossing new biography, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, “Fanon marks the moment when colonized peoples make their presence felt as men and women, rather than as ‘natives,’ ‘subjects,’ or ‘minorities,’ seizing the Word for themselves, asserting their desire for recognition, and their claim to power, authority, and independence.” For activists, Fanon’s writings have provided an uncompromising critique of colonialist logic and an existential guide to revolutionary struggle. What James Baldwin meant to Black America, Shatz argues, Frantz Fanon meant to the third world.
Born in 1925 in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, to upper-middle-class parents, Fanon grew up in a French colony. “The first three words Frantz learned to spell,” Shatz tells us, “were Je suis français, ‘I am French.’” A Creole elite of mixed French and African ancestry dominated the administration. In 1946, Martinique became an overseas department of metropolitan France after a campaign led by the renowned poet and politician Aimé Césaire, who, in Shatz’s words, “argued that his people’s interests were best served by remaining a part of France rather than seeking independence.” This decision frustrated Fanon, who insisted that freedom must be seized, not granted by the colonizer, and that such nominal independence restores no self-confidence to the colonized and only paves the way for neocolonialism.
Few thinkers in the 20th century equal Fanon’s influence in both academe and radical-activist circles.
Fanon’s early writings were concerned chiefly with the psychology of colonization. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), he theorized alienation under colonial rule and the prospect of what he called “disalienation,” which Shatz glosses as “the careful dismantling of psychological obstacles to an unfettered experience of selfhood that opens onto a broader project for the mental well-being of oppressed communities.” The devastating truth Fanon unearthed in this book is that the Black man or Black woman under colonial subjugation wishes to be white, and his analysis of every other phenomenon he studied, including interracial relationships, psychopathology, language, and the white gaze, flows from this central insight.
For Fanon, language was a key index of alienation under colonialism, which imposes the colonizer’s language on its subject peoples as it also denigrates the native’s tongue. “The Negro of the Antilles,” Fanon wrote, “will be proportionately whiter — that is, he will come closer to being a real human being — in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language.” This internalized desire for whiteness through language expressed itself tragicomically, as when for instance an Antillean first arrives in Paris and rolls his R’s exaggeratedly but mispronounces other words. An electrifying prose stylist, Fanon’s mastery of French and his irrepressible gift for language made him, in his colleague Alice Cherki’s recollection, “more French than the French.”
Repulsed by the mainstream approach to psychiatry he had learned as a medical student in Lyon, Fanon sought alternative methods of care, which he found during his residency at the Saint-Alban asylum in southern France. Saint-Alban was supervised by a maverick Spanish psychiatrist, François Tosquelles, who, like Fanon, despised mainstream medicine and pioneered an anti-authoritarian and deeply humanistic approach to psychiatry. According to Shatz, Saint-Alban
became a laboratory of radical psychiatry, giving birth to a new politics, even a poetics, of care. The revolution that unfolded at Saint-Alban had the imaginative freedom, the flair for spontaneity, of surrealism, but it was rooted in the unglamorous, mostly grinding labor of treating people suffering from extreme, often irreparable conditions — of restoring a sense of meaning and purpose to lives that had been stripped of both.
At Saint-Alban, Tosquelles divested doctors of their supreme authority and enlisted his entire staff in the care of patients. He removed the bars around patients’ cells. “The right to vagabondage,” Tosquelles believed, “is the first right of the sick person.” Involving patients in their own healing, he tried to approximate their lives beyond the asylum with activities such as farming, writing, dancing, arts and crafts, and theater. Fanon was deeply impressed with this approach and sought to replicate it in his own clinic in the North African country of Algeria.
In the event, Fanon, who arrived in the Algerian city of Blida in 1953 to take up the post of head doctor at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital, would soon find himself thrust into a revolutionary situation. On August 20, 1955, during the early years of the Algerian War, two leaders of the FLN, Youcef Zighoud and Lakhdar Bentobbal, started an uprising in the harbor town of Philippeville, in eastern Algeria. The leaders organized peasant militias and equipped them with grenades, axes, knives, pitchforks, and clubs. Over the next few days, they descended on about 30 towns and killed 123 people — 71 Europeans and 21 Algerians. Many of the militants were exacting revenge for an earlier massacre in the eastern city of Sétif, where on May 8, 1945, Algerian protesters — some of whom had fought to liberate Europe from Nazism — raised the flag of a new political party led by Messali Hadj during the town’s V-E Day celebrations. Police seized the flags, and clashes ensued. In the following weeks, French settlers and authorities in Sétif slaughtered thousands of Algerians in retaliation.
The violence at Philippeville prompted an equally ferocious backlash by French Algeria. France’s governor-general, Jacques Soustelle, was a liberal anthropologist with a reformist agenda for the North African country, but after Philippeville, he pivoted toward Algeria’s settlers and commenced a merciless campaign of repression. “When you see hundreds of people cut into pieces, young girls raped, heads cut off and so on, it makes an impression on you,” Soustelle said. As the French authorities increased their repression, Algerians gravitated toward the FLN, which ascended in the country and overtook its rivals.
Before Philippeville, the Algerian War was a low-intensity battle confined mostly in the mountainous countryside; after Philippeville, it erupted into a Manichean struggle and one of the bloodiest wars of decolonization. Philippeville was also a turning point for Fanon. “France’s repression in Philippeville,” writes Shatz, “marked, in Fanon’s words, ‘the point of no return,’ and it shaped his understanding of decolonization as an inherently violent process.”
It was in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that Fanon heralded the use of revolutionary violence as a force for disalienation. “At the level of individuals,” Fanon wrote, “violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” Some commentators have overemphasized this controversial claim at the expense of Fanon’s other arguments. Perhaps more relevant to our time is his distrust of the postcolonial bourgeoisie and elites: He predicted, accurately, that after independence third-world leaders would compromise with former colonial rulers, enriching themselves at the expense of their people and squandering the opportunity to create the truly new society and new humanity that Fanon idealistically envisioned. “We can do anything today provided we do not ape Europe, provided we are not obsessed with catching up to Europe,” he wrote. Yet those leaders who did not play nice with the European powers, such as Fanon’s friend Patrice Lumumba, were often assassinated or toppled.
“Violence is a cleansing force,” Fanon wrote. “It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”
Given his skepticism of elites, Fanon valorized the rural masses as the truly revolutionary force in Algerian society. On this score, he drew inspiration from Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, published one year earlier. For Sartre, in everyday life people encounter one another in alienated relationships of “seriality,” like passengers waiting in line for a bus. “But in periods of social upheaval,” writes Shatz, summarizing Sartre,
they are reconfigured as self-conscious collectives endowed with agency and the power to change their circumstances. This was exactly the transformation that Fanon had described … as Algeria’s Muslim population achieved national self-consciousness and embarked on an insurgency.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Shatz continues, Fanon would “extend [the] model” suggested by the Algerian case “to the entire colonial world.”
Though Fanon liked to hear himself talk, numerous contemporaries noted his gift for listening and encouraging his patients to express themselves without fear. Even as an anticolonial militant, he always treated his European patients with compassion and respect. (He did, however, draw the line with at least one French patient, an abuser of his wife and children who sought Fanon’s help in absolving himself of the guilt he felt from inflicting torture on Algerians.) “He also understood the importance of touch,” notes Shatz. Working with patients paralyzed by depression, he would take them by the hand, quietly and gently, until they felt comfortable enough to speak.
Yet Fanon was a highly demanding, indefatigable, and meticulous leader, and his subordinates both respected and feared him. He was no misogynist, at least by the standards of his time, but he certainly wasn’t a feminist, either. He was content to project himself as a “god” to his wife, Josie, and to foist on her the lion’s share of parenting duties while he labored alongside the “hard men” he so admired. He acknowledged the paternity of his daughter, Mireille, but otherwise had little to do with her. And as the philosopher Lewis Gordon has pointed out, though Fanon appears to have been influenced by de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, he does not cite her work, preferring to engage with male thinkers.
Working with patients paralyzed by depression, Fanon would take them by the hand, quietly and gently, until they felt comfortable enough to speak.
To some degree, Fanon evolved a more enlightened view of women’s agency during the Algerian revolution. In “Algeria Unveiled,” a chapter in his 1959 book A Dying Colonialism, he wrote with stunning and rapturous insight on the role of veiled female fighters who defied European voyeurism and, alternately, passed as French women in order to infiltrate strategic areas, all the while concealing explosives. By showing how French authorities sought to control Algeria’s feminine spaces under the guise of liberation from patriarchy, in order to recruit women to the colonial project, Fanon’s analysis anticipates recent research on western strategies of saving Muslim women as a pretext for waging the campaign against terrorism. But Shatz takes Fanon’s analysis at face value and ignores interpretations by North African scholars who see “Algeria Unveiled” as historically ungrounded.
Though he rebelled against the colonialist discipline of psychiatry, as a revolutionary Fanon was obliged to submit to the authoritarian discipline of the FLN. He had to make some profound moral compromises, such as when his friend Abane Ramdane was assassinated by rivals within the FLN and Fanon kept quiet about it. Using his platform in El Moudjahid (an FLN publication), Fanon also helped to cover up the FLN’s liquidation of a rival revolutionary faction. But Shatz emphasizes Fanon’s relative independence from the organization, relating that at “least once in the course of these missions Fanon reprimanded ranking officers when he saw them behaving cruelly toward young recruits.” That intervention could have cost Fanon his life — “‘Few Algerians would have dared’ to express such criticisms, Yousfi [Fanon’s bodyguard] remarked” — and indeed he survived at least one assassination attempt.
Fanon’s vision of independent Algeria contrasted with that of many of his fellow revolutionaries as well as other insurgents across the Muslim world. Fanon respected Islam and understood its power for advancing the revolution, but he worried about the instantiation of an Islamic state upon independence, as the following anecdote illustrates. In the late 1950s, Fanon’s books caught the attention of an Iranian graduate student, Ali Shariati, who had made contact with the FLN and helped to translate Fanon’s writings into Persian, and who later exerted an influence on Iran’s Islamic Revolution. In a letter to Fanon, Shariati expressed his admiration for Fanon’s analysis of the revolutionary resources of the Islamic faith, but the doctor’s respectful reply registered some distance between their views. Fanon “criticized the idea of an Islamic politics as a ‘withdrawal into oneself’ disguised as liberation from ‘alienation and de-personalization.’” Fanon believed that reanimating the “religious spirit” would expand sectarianism and hinder national unification — already a difficult feat to achieve. On this score, Fanon’s misgivings were not uniquely about Islam; as Shatz points out, he felt similarly about any attempt at cultural restoration.
Nor did his commitment to Algeria mean that Fanon abandoned the West Indies. Perhaps motivated by jealousy, Memmi insinuated that Fanon’s Algerian turn came at the expense of his native Martinique. “Fanon’s particular tragedy,” Memmi wrote, was that unlike Césaire, “he never again returned to Négritude and the West Indies.” He added that Fanon’s “true problem” was not how to be French or Algerian, “but how to be West Indian.” (Shatz detects an update of this view in the Afropessimism of Frank B. Wilderson III, who elevates Black Skin, White Masks over The Wretched of the Earth as the more authentic Fanonian text, and who also, scandalously, depicts non-Black allies such as Palestinians as “junior partners” in white supremacy.)
Within a few years, Fanon evolved from a defender of inclusion within the French Republic to a combatant against it.
Contra Memmi, Shatz argues: “Fanon never disavowed his Martinican roots, or his love of Césaire’s writings, from which he drew his images of slave revolt in The Wretched of the Earth. And nowhere was Fanon more West Indian than in his writings on Algeria and Africa, in which he transposed the experience of the West Indian plantation onto the entire third world.” Moreover, Memmi’s identitarian stance ignores what is most revolutionary about Fanon’s anticolonialism: that his militancy was not tethered to his identity, racial or otherwise, but was grounded rather in a non-Eurocentric universalism — one that holds political potential for a concept that colonialism emptied of meaning.
That said, Fanon was disappointed by the putative dearth of a mass revolutionary spirit in his native country; that was the difference, for him, between Martinique or Guadeloupe and Haiti (though Fanon would not live to see the immense and tragic price Haiti would pay, and continues to pay, for its revolutionary spirit). For Fanon, the neocolonialism borne of partial independence was a state of affairs as true of Francophone West Africa as of the West Indies. Here Fanon was clairvoyant. After all, in the 21st century, Francophone West Africa continues to use the infamous West African franc as currency, maintains French as the national language, harbors a significant French military presence in its territories, and remains in exploitative economic relationships with the metropole. The expansion of jihadist insurgency and military coups across the African Sahel today must be understood in the broader context of France’s neocolonial depredations.
Yet Fanon, as Shatz observes, seemed to believe that only one version of revolution was worthy and enduring: the kind of violent revolution undertaken by him and his FLN comrades. The Martinican writer Édouard Glissant, who “described Fanon’s decision to become Algerian as the only real ‘event’ in the modern history of the French West Indies,” nevertheless came to believe that “Fanon’s radicalism was incompatible with what he called ‘the ambiguity of the West Indian condition,’ and that an alternative path to freedom had to be found.” Glissant’s theory of créolité, with its mélange of cultures and openness to the world, postulates a West Indian mode of being at odds with Fanon’s “ideological precision.”
Revolutionary violence may indeed have disalienated the oppressed — the ones who survived, anyway. Many did not. Those who did were often crippled by trauma, guilt, and remorse for their actions. Then there was the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s, when the FLN killed as many as 200,000 Algerians and tortured countless others. Even when arrayed chiefly against the oppressor, violence, as Fanon understood, was unpredictable, and it’s impossible to know how its effects will reverberate intergenerationally. Disalienation through violence was, at best, a mixed bag.
The ongoing stream of critical commentaries, reading groups, and political organizing dedicated to Fanon suggest that his influence has not waned, even if the ideological space for his ideas appears minuscule in the culture at large. “Culture wars, as we think of them now, were meaningless to Fanon,” Shatz writes. What he means is that for Fanon, the question of culture divorced from political struggle is sterile. One may invert that sentence, though, and ask how Fanon is meaningful to the culture wars. There is no better index of this meaning than the current decimation of Gaza — and the prohibition, sometimes tacit, other times explicit, of speech and activism on behalf of its beleaguered population. Fanon did not write about Israel or Zionism, but his writings remain a touchstone for Palestinian activists and thinkers, and not only or chiefly because of his advocacy of violence. Yet in many Western nations, one can hardly speak of Palestinian humanity or suffering, let alone resistance, without retribution of some sort. Colleges have tolerated, if not embraced, all kinds of decolonizing rhetoric but are wobbling before pro-Palestinian activism; meanwhile, many faculty members remain silent. However, the Denkverbot on Palestinian humanity and the Israeli occupation is buckling under global pressure, it seems, even as formidable interests scramble to preserve it. The pervasiveness of such strictures indicates just how narrow a space exists for Fanonian interrogation in our culture. As Fanon famously put it in the “final prayer” that concludes Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”