Champion of the Wretched

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Fifty years ago this month Algerian psychoanalyst and revolutionary Frantz Fanon died - just as his most famous book, The Wretched of the Earth, was published. Leo Zeilig looks back at Fanon's extraordinary life and the lessons his groundbreaking work has for us today

Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925; thirty six years later he was buried in Algeria. In his short life he became one of the greatest proponents of Algeria's extraordinary revolution.

Fanon arrived in Algeria as a young psychiatrist in 1953. He was already a formidable intellectual and had recently published a powerful account of racism in Black Skins, White Masks. But he was no activist - while well read in philosophy and psychiatry he had only vague notions of revolutionary politics and theory. Algeria's unfolding revolution would turn this precocious rebel into a revolutionary.

Fanon in Algeria

France had invaded Algeria in 1830. Despite claiming Algeria as French territory from 1848, the French did not succeed in pacifying "native" resistance until 1871. It was a brutal process and French occupation threw Algerian society back hundreds of years. One account explained, "Algeria was no barbarian country inhabited by illiterate people with anarchic or sterile institutions. Its human and economic values attained a high level... Patriarchal, agricultural and civic lifestyles co-existed."

In the first two decades after 1830 the country's population fell by almost two million as thousands were made homeless by land seizures and killed by the invading army. When the revolts were finally and brutally suppressed the Arab-Berber (or indigènes) were excluded from French citizenship, becoming subjects with few rights.

Although a nationalist movement existed from the late 1920s it was not until the end of 1954 that the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was born. The FLN was committed to a new type of violent resistance to the French and demanded full independence.

Fanon was caught up in this climate of radicalisation. He helped FLN militants involved in the fighting, providing treatment in the hospital where he worked. By the end of 1956 his work had become impossible. He resigned from the hospital and ended up in Tunisia determined to dedicate himself to the Algerian Revolution.

Tunisia had become independent the previous year and was rapidly becoming the principal base for the FLN's exiled leadership. Fanon lived in Tunis for the rest of his life and worked on the FLN's newspaper El Moudjahid.

In 1959 Fanon wrote A Dying Colonialism - a brilliant and still relatively unknown book. He wanted to celebrate the popular involvement in the liberation of Algeria. He analysed the "radical mutation" of Algerian society - examining how women's role in Algeria was transformed by their activism, how male authority was being overturned and the changing relationship between men and women. "The couple is no longer shut in upon itself. It no longer finds its end in itself. It is no longer the result of the natural instinct of perpetuation of the species... The Algerian couple, in becoming a link in the revolutionary organisation, is transformed into a unit of existence."

As a description of a society undergoing profound and revolutionary change it remains unparallelled today. Fanons' work focused on how ordinary people were suddenly opened up to new possibilities by their engagement in political action - a process he memorably describes as being "recerebralised".

The Wretched of the Earth

At the end of 1960 Fanon was diagnosed with leukaemia and he knew that he only had a short time to live. He became possessed with the need to complete his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth. Pierre Chaulet, a close friend of Fanon, explained in a recent interview with me, "The Wretched of the Earth should be read like an urgent message, delivered in a raw state, uncorrected - we did not dare question certain passages in front of a man who was reading his text to the close friends that we were, while pacing up and down his room in Tunis, sick and aware that he was condemned, desiring with all his force, in a superb language, to say what he had to say."

Fanon had grown critical of national liberation. He knew that it was a crucial stage to real freedom from colonial oppression, but he began to see it as a project fraught with immense difficulties.

Fanon observed how the national bourgeoisie, the nationalist elite and the intelligentsia rapidly decayed after independence into "a sort of little caste, avid and voracious...only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it". This "profiteering caste" wanted to simply take the role of middleman to big business in the former colonial power.

Fanon argued that the struggle for independence had to be combined with a massive confrontation with the national bourgeoisie if a fundamental transfer of power and wealth was to take place. The national bourgeoisie had to be broken or no real liberation was possible.

Fanon learnt from experience. He saw how the radical ideas of Ghana's influential first independent leader, Kwame Nkrumah, crashed against the compromises the new state made with the old colonial power and Nkrumah's own cautious approach to struggles taking place across the continent.

Fanon's disappointment can also be felt in the pages of his classic. The great poet of black pride and the new president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, had betrayed the Algerian Revolution by accepting French president Charles de Gaulle's compromise of a French community of African states and not full independence.

"National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been," wrote Fanon.

Fanon also wrote about how great powers would not countenance the real political and economic independence of their former possessions. In the Congo he watched how a nationalist party was democratically elected in 1960, yet days after the ceremony of independence two mineral-rich provinces - backed and armed by the old colonial power - broke away. Within seven months the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by a group of local "puppets" and Belgian troops. For Fanon the nationalist elite evolved after independence into the very exploiting class that they had uprooted.

Class and revolution
But Fanon, like many thinkers of his time, was shaped by a version of Marxism heavily influenced by Stalinism. He was disgusted by the refusal of the powerful French Communist Party to support Algerian independence (though he was inspired by individual Communists and Trotskyists). The French Communist Party claimed to speak in the name and interests of the working class and Fanon did not see the possibility of French workers acting independently in support of the Algerian Revolution. Instead he argued that Cuba and Vietnam pointed to the central role of the peasantry, declaring, "It is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain."

Fanon extended his argument to the organised African working class, saying that it had been effectively "bought off" with the profits of imperialist exploitation: "The embryonic proletariat of the towns is in a comparatively privileged position... In the colonial countries the working class has everything to lose; in reality it represents that fraction of the colonised nation which is necessary and irreplaceable if the colonial machine is to run smoothly."

Fanon was wrong. Algeria was part of a long wave of protest that consumed the Middle East and North Africa. In much of the region it was working class movements after 1945 that established the struggles against imperialism and launched the struggle for decolonisation. From Egypt to Iran and Syria, mass movements tantalised the region with the possibility of combining and spreading national liberation and socialist change under working class leadership. Key moments in Algeria's own revolution confirmed these trends.

But the biggest problem for these movements was their inability to generate intellectual or ideological alternatives to the Stalinist framework that dominated nationalist thinking and which insisted on the separation of national liberation from socialist revolution. Towards the end of his life Fanon realised that the greatest danger threatening Africa was the "absence of ideology".

In the ideological and organisational vacuum another group emerged. In Iraq and Egypt after a period of mass movement it was a nationalist army officers and intellectuals who captured state power in a moment of revolutionary struggle, not organised workers. Though the processes were different in Algeria, there were important similarities.

The Wretched of the Earth wrestles brilliantly with the problem of the separation of national liberation and socialist change. In his own way Fanon was attempting to rejoin these elements that he understood as essential for real liberation. The new humanism that he sought could only really be achieved by the self-activity of the poor in the Third World in alliance with the European working class.

Fanons' work is often accused of celebrating violence. He did not. Instead he wrote that colonialism is "violence in its natural state" and that it came into the world over the bodies of those it conquered and labelled as inferior and primitive. Fanon recognised violent resistance was necessary, but also therapeutic. The counter-violence of the oppressed helped to reverse the crippling sense of inferiority among those long despised and discarded at the bottom of society. Fanon was not the apostle of violence, but its subtle and pragmatic analyst.

Fanon's refusal to see how a movement could be centred on the power of independent working class politics needs to be placed in context.

Legacy

What became known as Fanonist revolutionary strategy - "peasant-led insurrections" - after his death in 1961 spoke in large part of the failures and divisions of the Algerian War and political choices made by the FLN. Yet in reality such movements were far from peasant led. Instead they were dominated by sections of the middle class intelligentsia. It was this intelligentsia, not peasants, who, if the colonial power was successfully defeated, were lifted up to become the new nationalist elite that Fanon so despised.

But The Wretched of the Earth shows Fanon developing his ideas with analytical (and lyrical) brilliance as he tried to understand and shape the movements that he was passionately committed to. Pierre Chaulet is correct in the assessment of his friend: "Fanon was neither a new Gramsci, nor was he a prophet. He was a man of his time, marked by a particular experience, that he reflected on, he expressed himself marvellously and he made lots of mistakes like all of us but his essential message was the humanisation of humanity... In Algeria's struggle for independence he discovered the liberation of alienated 'man' - which was also his psychiatric work - as well as the political, economic and cultural liberation of a dispossessed and dehumanised people."

Today revolutionary change has shifted again to North Africa. We should once more return to Fanon for his extraordinary insights into revolutionary change and his insistence on waging a relentless battle against the "caste of profiteers" who seek to control and break our movements.