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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 about him, the present Algerian authorities are anxious to minimize Fanon’s part in the Algerian revolution and his influence on its leaders. The North American black movements are likely to have reservations about a thinker who, though he had the right color, did not think that blackness in itself was enough. The revolutionary movements of sub-Saharan Africa are not going to overlook the fact that, as Basil Davidson has shown in his recent study of Angola, Fanon’s intervention in their affairs was disastrous. 2 The independent African governments will note that he has criticized most of them bitterly and correctly. The Palestinian liberation movement, Mrs. Gendzier suggests, is about to “re-evaluate” his position. Marxists of various shades have always been critical, and though no impartial observer can question his revolutionary bona fides, the alleged help he got from the CIA in his last days (a question which “has never been entirely cleared up,” p. 232) will not do his reputation much good among leftists of any kind.

So as the original vogue for Fanon subsides—and there are signs that it is already past its peak—he may well for a time enter that shadowy underworld whose borders are defined by the deadly question: “Whatever became of X?” He will probably emerge from it, but as an analytical and passionate witness rather than as a guide for revolutionaries. The Wretched of the Earth is a remarkable book, and a moving and penetrating statement about the predicament of man in the greater part of the mid-twentieth-century world, but perhaps it is closer to Malraux’s Condition Humaine than to the writings of Mao Tse-tung. Still, until it establishes itself as one of the central books of our time, it needs not only to be read but also to be critically explained. Irene Gendzier’s book greatly facilitates the task of explanation.

Like other writers of the Third World, but unlike, say, current feminist writers, Fanon is incomprehensible outside the context of Marxism and the international communist movement. He writes about the sort of revolution envisaged by the Marxists—as the allusion to the “Internationale” in the title of his major work indicates—and the traditional “old left” of East or West remains his major point of reference, if only negatively. His theory attempts to provide a substitute for an “orthodox” Marxism, which had apparently little of relevance to say about most of the Third World, and for communist parties that were either politically insignificant or held out insufficiently exciting prospects.

Some of the criticisms made by the writers of the Third World were valid, some were based on a comprehensible ignorance of what Marxists had said about colonial countries,3 some were partly justified. Some merely reflected the widely prevalent and dangerous view that large areas of the Third World were so ready for revolution that its fires would flare up as soon as a few determined men and women decided to light the first match, that it was only necessary for a group of activists to remember that the business of revolutionaries is to make revolution. Algeria and Cuba showed that this could sometimes happen, but not that it had to. There are more examples of failure than of success. The existence of such a mood in the 1950s and 1960s is a historical fact, but so is the record of failure, for which, in at least one instance, Fanon himself must bear some personal responsibility.4

The failure of voluntarist revolution and ideas has discredited the writers associated with them. But it should not obscure the genuine defects of the Marxist analysis which prevailed in the 1950s and to which Fanon drew attention. It is clearly impossible, as some interpreters of Marx seemed to suggest, to assign the roles of the bourgeoisie and proletariat in developed countries to regions where regularly employed workers form a small aristocracy among the poor, and where the nearest equivalent to an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie consists of parasites on foreign enterprise or racketeers exploiting the control of the state apparatus for private enrichment. It is equally unjustifiable to dismiss what is actually the great majority of the urban laboring poor as a lumpenproletariat, as Marxists undoubtedly tended—and still sometimes tend—to do.

Again, in spite of Lenin it was difficult to discover in the communist discussion of the Fifties a clear recognition of the political role, in backward countries, of intellectuals and other educated elites. And though the Marxist theory and practice of peasant movements were much greater and more interesting than those of the “Third World new left,” the notoriously complex relationship between Marxists and “the agrarian problem” may explain why the new militants did not find the available communist literature very helpful.

The substitute Marxism of the new left of the Third World is therefore interesting in so far as it confronts the realities—social, political, and psychological—of its countries more effectively than contemporary orthodoxy does. That is why The Wretched of the Earth will remain a serious achievement when, say, Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution has become merely part of a forgotten ideological polemic. Paradoxically, Fanon’s realism was forced upon him because he had to make up most of his analysis on the spot in Algeria. When he found himself plunged into revolution as a practicing psychiatrist; he knew practically nothing about Algeria—his ideas about the country were naïve in the extreme—and very little more about revolutionary strategy. Since his main interest had lain not so much in politics as in social psychiatry, this was natural enough.

Of course, Fanon was black, and therefore possessed a visceral experience of the relations between black and white, slave and master, colonizer and colonized, which is the foundation of his analysis. Moreover, he had the advantage of coming from the Caribbean, that curious terrestrial spacestation from which fragments of various races, torn from the worlds of their ancestors and aware both of their origins and of the impossibility of returning to them, can watch the remainder of the globe with unaccustomed detachment. Being displaced persons by ancestry, by the need to seek a higher education outside their islands, and by the uncertain future of their mini-peoples, Caribbean intellectuals of Fanon’s generation were protected against an excessively provincial nationalism.

It is a good region in which to be born black, as witness the disproportionately large number of distinguished black intellectuals and political activists of West Indian origin: Fanon himself, Guillén, Aimé Césaire, René Depestre, Garvey, Padmore, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, and more than one leading US militant. For Caribbeans not only are conscious of the joint heritage of slavery and European culture, but some also possess the confidence that comes from living in largely black societies. Fanon was both inevitably conscious of blackness and—justifiably—quite confident of his rights as a man and of his intellectual equality with any other man. Sufficiently confident to recognize that négritude, though perhaps a necessary stage in the formation of political consciousness, was not enough.

He came to Algeria with the intellectual baggage of a postwar Sartrean French intellectual who had been trained as a psychiatrist. Left-wing commonplaces picked up in student discussions and organizations, as well as his psychological studies, were all grafted onto the basic consciousness of a man belonging to a colored and colonized people. Algeria changed him, because it gave him the experience of a major revolution, i.e., both the concrete sense of the social and political forces at work in a rising of the “wretched of the earth” and the sense of the harsh, apocalyptic quality of such a phenomenon.

Revolutions differ from the mere rituals of rebellion or liberation, which are more frequently experienced. They require reason—the hard, Machiavellian reason of state—and they call for different emotions. Their emotion is the terrible reverberation of those who suffer and inflict suffering, rewarded by the dream, and with luck the more or less brief reality, of collective ecstasy, and, for the soldiers of revolution, as for all soldiers, the more lasting reality of comradeship. Yet Fanon’s strength as a writer—and weakness as a revolutionary—was that he was not merely aware of what revolutions and civil war implied for human experience, but haunted by it: as witness the case studies at the end of The Wretched of the Earth in which he records and reflects upon the mental disturbances of those surrounded by, and participating in, murder, torture, and betrayal. They may, as Mrs. Gendzier points out, be defective as psychiatric case notes, but who will forget the two Algerian boys who murdered their European friend, or the torturer who met his victim in the same clinic? Like Isaac Babel, Fanon was better at realizing what killing and torture meant than at practicing them.

Perhaps Fanon’s exaggeration of the role of violence, which has attracted immature readers to The Wretched of the Earth, was an attempt to confront and resolve his own feelings about the realities of the brutal conflict in which he was involved. As Mrs. Gendzier recognizes, it is a confused concept which “mingled existential notions with political recommendations,” personal catharsis and the acquisition of collective self-respect, colonial liberation in the most general sense and effective revolutionary action. Fanon wrote, “At the level of individuals violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” He also wrote:

When the people have taken violent part in the national liberation they will allow no one to set themselves up as liberators…. Illuminated by violence, the consciousness of the people rebels against any pacification. From now on the demagogues, the opportunists and the magicians have a difficult task.

It is doubtful whether violence as such and for its own sake is particularly effective for any of the purposes Fanon assigns to it, except perhaps as a burning of boats, a means of ensuring personal and collective commitment to the struggle. But under certain circumstances it is a historical fact, and its very inappropriateness to the rational purposes of action has to be explained and assimilated.

As Mrs. Gendzier perceptively notes, in Algeria violence was a fact associated, on the revolutionary side, chiefly with the “bidonville lumpenproletariat” and above all with “the deviant nationalists, the illegal elements of the nationalist party who secede from its conformity,” i.e., the marginal, rootless, activist minority. Violence may or may not be characteristic of the colonial peasantry, but though Fanon talked much about peasants in general terms, he said little about them that was specific and knew even less: for one thing, he never learned their languages. His discussion of violence—which must not be confused with the justification of armed as against peaceful struggle—was the attempt to rationalize what he saw in Algeria into a political strategy, in order to make it more tolerable. He did not make it more tolerable, and his attempt to rationalize it was mistaken, but in so far as it showed the need to analyze a historical situation concretely, his effort was not wasted.

At the very least, his discussion of violence illuminated the dilemmas of the colonial revolutionary. On the one hand, he argues that the only organized social forces—the national bourgeoisie and the urban and organized proletariat—are unable or unwilling to lead the movement of liberation; the former because it has more to lose than to gain, being a relatively favored group, the latter because its aim is merely to replace colonialism by neocolonialism. His arguments are exaggerated but there is, as experience has shown, sufficient truth in them to make them bite.5 Fanon’s ruthless analysis of the elites governing the newly de-colonized states of black Africa is particularly effective.

On the other hand, without the existence of a political organization based on those organized social forces of the nation, the task of achieving liberation with the intertwined forces of the peasantry and the unorganized urban laboring poor is almost insuperable. Fanon criticized the old parties, but was equally aware of the dangers of “spontaneity.” The logical product of his own kind of revolution, made by an informal breakaway elite of “illegal” activists who, through armed action, mobilize both peasants and lumpenproletariat, is yet another party, as removed from the masses as the old ones and based on a leadership of “wise men”—intellectuals, civil servants, elites—that would itself turn into another technocrat bureaucracy.

Mrs. Gendzier observes this well. Moreover, she sees that Fanon’s view in practice led him in an even more dangerous direction. His affinities within the Algerian revolutionary movement in his last years, she argues, were with the military wing, and though Colonel Boumédienne, the leader of Algeria, appears today to be anxious to minimize Fanon’s influence on him, his side was the one that Fanon seems to have backed (pp. 252-257). In the absence of an effective party, the army was probably the firmest base for the new revolutionary regime. But it is highly unlikely that Fanon would today feel happy in the colonel’s Algeria. And not merely because it is usual for successful revolutions to disappoint foreign sympathizers who joined and supported them in the heroic period of struggle and insurrection. The man who was essentially a colonial revolutionary speaking for all the oppressed would not have welcomed an Algerian ideology which has increasingly fallen back on Islam and on an exclusive Arab nationalism.

It is uncertain whether we should blame Fanon’s (and our) disappointment on the defects of his own political analysis and activity, or on a situation which left little room for any other result. Fanon certainly analyzed that situation perceptively, though in terms that were more passionate than precise. The revolutionary forces in Algeria were as he described them, and it is no good lamenting that they were not the same as in, say, Vietnam. The political situation in postcolonial black Africa is profoundly disappointing, with the rarest of exceptions, and likely long to remain so in most parts of that continent, even on a rather optimistic view. On the other hand, in so far as Fanon did not ask colonial revolutionaries to make the best of a bad job but attempted to rationalize the Algerian experience and his analysis of the black African experience into a positive and desirable strategy and program for liberation, he deluded himself and is likely to delude his readers.

Whatever Fanon’s writings are, they are not a good practical guide for revolutionaries, though revolutionaries can and must learn from them to pay attention to the realities—social, political, and psychological—which he wrote about so eloquently. In due course, his work will probably cease to be regarded as a textbook. On the other hand, it would be a pity if his books continued to be read primarily as a means of self-discovery by men and women belonging to oppressed races, who find in him a voice to articulate their unformed thoughts and express their existential experience. Worse and more superficial writers have the capacity to do this. As Mrs. Gendzier observes, “There is little that affects political developments in developing countries that is not discussed here.” And discussed with a rare combination of intelligence, emotion, and experience.

Fanon’s observations on national culture are particularly acute:

No colonialism draws its justification from the fact that the territories it dominates are culturally nonexistent. You will never make colonialism blush for shame by spreading out little-known treasures under its eyes. At the very moment when the native intellectual is anxiously trying to create a cultural work he fails to realize that he is utilizing techniques and language which are borrowed from the stranger in his country. He contents himself with stamping these instruments with a hallmark which he wishes to be national, but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism.

Fanon’s work may belong to the literature of testimony, but it is the testimony of an analytical and participant observer of great intellectual perceptiveness. “The Third World,” wrote Sartre about The Wretched of the Earth, “finds itself and speaks to itself through his voice.” It also speaks to us and to the future. Hitherto what has been listened to is mainly the call to revolution and some rather debatable observations about how to achieve it. But Fanon also contains a warning against the pseudo solutions and distortions of the incomplete, aborted, or short-circuited revolutions of the Third World. In the long run this warning may prove to be more influential and more necessary than the mere cry of revolt.

  1. 1

    Since the demand for theoretical literature among young academics, especially those from middle-class families, is not closely geared to their social situation, it has also encouraged the production of a more abstract form of instant classic, as in the reinterpretation of Marx in fashionable terms—e.g., Althusser—and the rediscovery of forgotten Marxist theorists—e.g., Korsch and others.

  2. 2

    In the Eye of the Storm: Angola’s People (Doubleday, 1972).

  3. 3

    Even today only rather erudite experts are aware of the development of Marxist discussion on these questions, and no adequate account of them exists.

  4. 4

    Cf. Basil Davidson, op. cit., pp. 191-192, for Fanon’s decision to back the politically doubtful Roberto Holden’s UPA in Angola against the MPLA, which he recognized to be more serious, because Holden was prepared to go into action immediately. The Angolan liberation struggle is today conducted chiefly by the MPLA, which was almost destroyed for some years because of the hostility of the UPA, whose own insurrection was unsuccessful.

  5. 5

    The fact that Communist parties claim to represent the proletariat does not mean that it is their proletarian base—in so far as it exists—that makes them revolutionary.

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