The French occupied and exploited Algeria for 130 years. They too felt above the law, with almost a Divine Right to rule inferior races and cultures. One of those who disagreed with them was Frantz Fanon. He was born in the French colony of Martinique. He became a volunteer for the French army during World War II. After the war he went to France, where he studied medicine and psychiatry from 1945 to 1950. In 1953 he became the head of the psychiatric department of a government hospital in Algeria, then a French territory. A young black man searching for his own identity in a white colonial culture, he experienced racism. As a psychiatrist, he studied the dynamics of racism and its effects on the individual.
The Wretched of the Earth (French: Les Damnés de la Terre, first published 1961) is Frantz Fanon’s most famous work, written during and regarding the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial rule. As a psychiatrist, Fanon explored the psychological effect of colonization on the psyche of a nation as well as its broader implications for building a movement for decolonization. The original title of the book is an allusion to the opening words of The Internationale.
A controversial introduction to the text by Jean-Paul Sartre presents the thesis as an advocacy of violence (which Sartre had also examined in his voluminous Critique of Dialectical Reason). This focus derives from the book’s opening chapter ‘Concerning Violence’ which is a caustic indictment of colonialism and its legacy. It discusses violence as a means of liberation and a catharsis to subjugation. Homi K. Bhabha argues that Sartre’s opening comments have led to a limited approach to the text that focuses on the promotion of violence.
Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth inspired a wave of anti-colonial struggle in the mid-twentieth century. His vivid descriptions, written with a tangible anger and steadfast determination to send Africa in a better direction, create a literary masterpiece to be appreciated by any reader of political philosophy. But its true value lies in its propheticism; it is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand the make-up of contemporary Africa and goes a long way in explaining the current struggles across the north of Africa, the Middle East and the Arab Peninsula.
Liberal democracy and statehood in the West came out of economic changes in the nineteenth century. With the rationalization of labor and the invention of steam power, more efficient production methods facilitated the emergence of a wealthy middle class. The wealth of the middle class left it dominant over the aristocracy and left them free to impose their own more utilitarian method of rule – parliamentary democracy – which emphasized the protection of business and the defense of private property. Liberal democracy works in the West because it emerged out of and with changing Western social relations and not the other way round; it was the natural political shift for a different class’ social rule. The idea of representative democracy that rulers govern on behalf of the people is therefore deeply engrained in the national consciousness of Western countries.
African democracy was built on far more unstable foundations. This instability came from the complete destruction in the nineteenth century of a plethora of traditional, regional, clan-based social structures. It came at the hands of European colonialists; businessmen who were keen to exploit the labor of poor foreigners, and missionaries, riding the wave of Darwinian Theory, who were determined to turn Africans into ‘civilized’ mirror-images of the ‘progressive’ West. As they developed, colonial societies became divided down an exclusive binary of white/black, colonizer/colonized, exploiter/exploited. This divide constituted the foundations of contemporary African societies and it was under these conditions that Africa was carved up, the maps drawn, and modern African democracies emerged.
The only ‘natives’ who stood to gain anything from the colonial experience were those tribal elites who the colonizers deemed it necessary to keep on side as a control mechanism. They were given Western educations, persuaded of the benefits of market capitalism and were allowed to maintain some authority and power, becoming an essential link in the hierarchies of ‘indirect rule’ used by the colonizers. Accountability for the black elite, shifted from their own people to their colonial masters. The masses in Africa were reduced to the status of disenfranchised slave laborers, with broken cultures, broken identities and no avenues to voice their opinions. They were, at the turn of the twentieth century, the ‘Wretched of the Earth.’
(The Wretched of the Earth: Still Relevant, In the wake of the Arab Spring, is it time to revisit Frantz Fanon’s classic? 7 June 2011 by Jack Chapman at thinkafricapress.com)
Frantz Fanon’s greatest source of originality as a postcolonial theorist lay in the fact that he combined psychology and politics in his analysis of colonial problems, national liberation and social revolution.
For Fanon, psychopathology in the colonial society, or any other oppressive society for that matter, can be characterized as ‘pathology of liberty’. This means that for a psychological intervention to be sincere and relevant, the psychological services offered would have to play their part in restoring freedom in some meaningful capacity to the sufferer (Hooks 2004).
According to Bulhan (1985), for Fanon, oppression in the practice and institutionalization of violence by the colonial state is not only motivated and perpetuated by economic motives, but also by psychological and cultural interests. The revolutionary response of the oppressed to such violence generates a new language, people and humanity. Such a response has the potential to produce a liberated society (Bulhan 1985).
Concerning violence Fanon argues that decolonization is always a violent phenomenon: ‘The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it.’ Accordingly, decolonization is a programme of ‘complete disorder’ which aims to change the social order of the colonial world. It is a meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature: ‘(their) first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together – that is to say the exploitation of the native by the settler – was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannon’. Colonial society by its very nature is violent.
(The wretched of the earth: Critical psychology in the colonial context by Mandisi Majavu at pambazuka.org)
Fanon, the antiracist and revolutionary prophet, never saw the end result of the process he described: full independence of his adopted Algeria. In 1960 he served as ambassador to Ghana for the Algerian provisional government, but it was soon discovered that he had leukemia.
On his return to Tunis, after his exhausting trip across the Sahara to open a Third Front, Fanon was diagnosed with leukemia. He went to the Soviet Union for treatment and experienced some remission of his illness. On his return to Tunis he dictated his testament The Wretched of the Earth. When he was not confined to his bed, he delivered lectures to ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale) officers at Ghardimao on the Algero-Tunisian border. He made a final visit to Sartre in Rome and went for further leukemia treatment in the USA.
He died in Bethesda, Maryland, on December 6, 1961 under the name of Ibrahim Fanon. He was buried in Algeria, after lying in state in Tunisia. Later his body was moved to a martyrs’ (chouhada) graveyard at Ain Kerma in eastern Algeria. Fanon was survived by his wife Josie (née Dublé), a French woman, their son Olivier, and his daughter (from a previous relationship) Mireille. Mireille married Bernard Mendès-France, son of the French politician Pierre Mendès-France.