Passionate Witness

Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study

by Irene L. Gendzier
Pantheon, 300 pp., $10.00

With the decline of the ocean liner, transatlantic crossings by sailing boat have once again become fashionable, at any rate among the adventurous. The decline of the great organized international revolutionary movement has similarly left an empty niche in ideology and strategy, which was to be filled by adventurers and experimenters, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.

The typical situation between 1917 and 1949 was one in which the body of existing revolutionary theory, provided in the (generally voluminous) writings of a few all purpose “classics,” came with the party card, as is still the case with the movements descended from Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Sometimes a living leader was considered, or promoted himself to the status of, “classic,” and his pronouncements were treated accordingly. In most countries the international “classics” were authoritative, though here and there a local addition was also available, or rather permitted: Connolly in Ireland, Mariátegui in Peru, Gramsci in Italy. In the later Stalin period attempts were also made to raise whoever was national party leader to similar status, but (at least in non-communist countries) without much conviction. By and large everyone thought they knew what the theory was and where it was to be found.

The prestige of Marxism and of the great revolutions made in its name is such that even now few revolutionaries are prepared to forego it, so that almost everyone on the political far left pins some sort of Marxist button to his clothing. Even anarchists are today likely to pay their respects to Marx while following Bakunin. Still, since the Chinese triumph the characteristic revolutions have been those in which communist parties, orthodox or dissident, have not played a decisive part, either because they eschewed insurrection or because they were too weak to count for much. Sometimes (as in Algeria, Cuba, or Ceylon) uprisings have been undertaken by groups entirely outside the established political structures of the old left, though they often included men and women formerly belonging to it.

New situations, new movements, new leaders unable or unwilling to use the old guidebooks tend to generate new ones. Or, rather, to accept new guidebooks written as often as not by free-lance theoreticians with the purpose of justifying and explaining them. Hence the emergence of instant revolutionary “classics,” during the past fifteen years, that is characteristic of the Third World insurrectionary and guerrilla movements, of the black, women’s lib, and student movements—the last of which has been least productive of such writings, because its social base is the least permanent.1

Time alone will tell which of these instant “classics” will outlast the historical moment that generated them and the fashion that established their vogue. Since survival does not depend primarily on merit, one can only speculate about this question. Certainly the real free-lance theoreticians are the most vulnerable, and especially Frantz Fanon, because the movements with which he was or is associated are unlikely to canonize him.

As Irene Gendzier points out in her excellent and remarkably levelheaded book…

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