The publication of Peter Hudis’s political biography of Frantz Fanon coincides with a resurgence of interest in Fanon’s ideas. Hudis is concerned to restore Fanon as a revolutionary who should be read carefully in historical context.
Fanon grew up in Martinique, a French colony, but his first real experience of racism came in the French army in North Africa during the Second World War. Based as a psychiatrist in Blida, Algeria, Fanon both sheltered and treated militants from the National Liberation Movement (FLN), before moving to Tunisia where he became their spokesman abroad.
Fanon was a humanist thinker, concerned to analyse the “livedness” of colonial racism and the internalisation of the colonisers’ racist views. Racism was “produced by a structure of colonial and class domination that is wedded to specific socioeconomic determinants”, which could be changed.
Although Fanon looked to the creation of a new humanity through anti-colonial struggle, he warned of the dangers of the rise of new black bourgeoisies and of the old colonial powers continuing economic domination after independence.
Hudis sees some flaws in Fanon, but refers positively to Fanon “slightly stretching” Marxism. Fanon saw the peasantry as the revolutionary class. Hudis himself points to Fanon’s silence about the 1956 Hungarian working class uprising and refers to the importance of the working class in South Africa and Nigeria.
Unfortunately, he does not refer to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, the theoretical basis for the working class led revolution in Russia, an overwhelmingly peasant country. The theory of “permanent revolution deflected” by Tony Cliff explains the outcome, feared by Fanon, of so many anticolonial struggles.
Fanon’s concept of violence has been much criticised and Hudis is right to defend Fanon’s belief that violence can be necessary in independence struggles.
However, Hudis does well to point out that peasant armed struggle did not prevent the development of one-party state systems, and that violence used by the colonised has a transformative impact on those fighting, in the way Fanon expected. Unfortunately, Hudis fails to refer to Marx’s own discussion of how workers transform themselves through their own struggles.
Fanon was sensitive to the racists’ ends to which religion could be put by colonial powers and the dangers of religious sectarianism. But Hudis goes further.
He argues, “The Islamic fundamentalists who murder civilians in France have the same aim as Christian fundamentalists who do the same in Norway or the US — they wish to push history backward by provoking permanent inter-religious warfare.”
And, “Those who apologise or make excuses for Islamic fundamentalism and its regressive agenda will find no comfort in the thought of Fanon, his writings on violence notwithstanding. And those who seek alliances or compromises with political Islamism — on the grounds that it is an ‘understandable reaction’ to ‘Western imperialism’ — will find no support within his body of thought either.”
Who knows what Fanon would have made of developments in the last 20 years? It is not at all certain that he would have supported the military coup, backed by the French state, which annulled the elections in Algeria in 1992. And despite the horrors of the recent attacks in Paris, would he side with French imperialism bombing ISIS?
It is perhaps wiser to read Fanon’s writings for their powerful articulation of anger at all forms of racism and for the humanism which drives his writing rather than look to him as a prophet for today.