By: Jairus Banaji (copy from Facebook)
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Martinique-born psychiatrist, writer and political militant who became part of Algeria’s struggle for independence in 1954. To Fanon the struggle for Algeria’s independence from French rule had to be simultaneously ‘national, revolutionary and social’.
Fanon, diagnosed with leukaemia by the start of 1961, didn’t have long to live when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth, and the parts actually written in 1961 (less than half the book) must have been dictated with the same feverishness that Beauvoir found in him later that summer. Les Damnés de la terre was put together between April and the beginning of July, the chapter on violence appearing first as an article in Les Temps modernes in May 1961. The whole text was complete, and had been read by Sartre, by the time Fanon and Sartre met in Rome in the third week of July. Why Sartre? Fanon’s earliest book, Black Skin, White Masks, was full of references to Sartre’ work, not all of them admiring, but in 1961 the reason for wanting to meet Sartre was surely more specific, the deep impression his just-published magnum opus Critique of Dialectical Reason had made on Fanon the previous year. (Beauvoir reports that Fanon told Lanzmann ‘I’d give twenty thousand francs a day to be able to talk to Sartre from morning to night for two weeks’.)
In his fine biography of Fanon, David Macey says that Fanon ‘read the Critique with passion and enthusiasm as soon as it appeared’, in May 1960. He even calls it ‘the main theoretical influence’ on The Wretched of the Earth. When two editors of Les Temps modernes went to see Fanon in Tunis, in the spring or early summer of 1961, they were ‘shocked by the state in which they found him’ (seriously ill). Yet all he would talk about with them (apart from Algeria and Africa) was Sartre and the Critique!
Fanon, of course, has always been read as advocating violence, preaching it with a sort of unstoppable fervour. But this is a radical misreading of what the first chapter is all about. For a start, as Macey argues, unimpeachably one might add, “it is almost absurd to criticize Fanon for his advocacy of violence. He did not need to advocate it. The ALN was fighting a war and armies are not normally called upon to justify their violence. By 1961, the violence was everywhere. It had even seeped into the unconscious. A schoolteacher ‘somewhere in Algeria’ set his pupils, aged between ten and fourteen, the essay topic ‘What would you do if you were invisible?’ They all said that they would steal arms and kill the French soldiers…” (Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography)
The last thing Fanon was doing was conjuring an armed struggle where none existed. When he wrote the chapter on violence, what Algeria had seen for the past half-decade was a ‘murderous and decisive struggle between’ the French and the FLN. In 1957 Fanon called France’s war of repression a ‘genocidal campaign’ (Toward the African Revolution, p. 78). That there have been other trajectories of decolonization based on less violent struggles is neither here nor there. There are no formulas here that can be transplanted in some obvious way from one ‘national’ situation to another. The Algerian revolution was in many respects ‘the most popular and profound national revolution in the entire Arab world’, as Hugh Roberts says in his book The Battlefield: Algeria 1988–2002 .
The early parts of Wretched of the Earth have an almost mystical idea of the Algerian nation as a fused group unified in and by armed struggle. Fanon was deeply suspicious of parties, party machines and party bureaucracies, and the violence he foregrounded was one he identified (1) with spontaneity, (2) with the peasant masses, (3) with the Algerian countryside. ‘The mass of the country people have never ceased to think of the problem of their liberation except in terms of violence,…in terms of national struggle, and of armed insurrection’ (p. 101). The violence of the Algerian insurrection had an inexorable quality because it re-exteriorised the violence of the colonial regime. Fanon refers repeatedly to the ‘atmosphere of violence’, violence which is ‘just under the skin’. ‘The Manichaeism of the settler produces a Manichaeism of the native.’ Each side was “absolute evil” to the other. In Sartre’s terms, this is colonialism as a ‘practico-inert hell’ . When Sartre wrote, ‘The only possible way out [in Algeria] was to confront total negation with total negation, violence with equal violence’, he was describing the sort of ‘choice’ a worker makes who in his freedom ‘takes upon himself everything which crushes him – exhausting work, exploitation, oppression…’.
Macey writes, “It is not difficult to understand why Fanon has been largely forgotten in France, where there is now little interest in his work. Almost ten years after Fanon’s death, a critic noted that Fanon had been forgotten because France wanted to forget something else, namely a war in Algeria that lasted for eight years. France wanted to forget ‘one million dead, two million men, women and children in camps, police raids and torture in France and, at the same time, apart from rare fits of indignation, the passivity of the masses and the spinelessness of the entire Left’ (Michel-Ange Burnier). It is of course difficult to remember something that never happened, and France has been slow to recognize that there was indeed an Algerian war…It was only in 1999 that France accepted that the Algerian war did take place and that references in legislative documents to ‘peace-keeping operations’ should be replaced by references to ‘the Algerian war’. The war, or ‘the war without a name’, has never been truly forgotten. There is an abundant literature on the subject, with new histories appearing at regular intervals.” (Macey, Frantz Fanon, p. 15).