The sixtieth anniversary of Frantz Fanon’s death on December 5 last year has prompted a number of reconsiderations of his legacy. Several focused on what Fanon called his “testament”: his pathbreaking evaluation of the African revolutions in The Wretched of the Earth, completed only weeks before his death from leukemia at the age of thirty-six.
Although many hailed The Wretched of the Earth at the time of its publication as a “bible of Third World revolution,” the book only makes passing reference to developments in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and does not attempt to provide an exhaustive analysis of the many African liberation movements that were active at the time. Its focal point is rather a detailed mediation on the Algerian revolution, in which its author had directly participated since shortly after his arrival in Algiers in 1953.
The Algerian Fulcrum
Fanon had good reason to see the Algerian revolution as the fulcrum and vanguard of the wider African revolutions. While French and British imperialism were willing to concede political independence to some of their African colonies by the late 1950s, matters were very different in Algeria. The country contained a large percentage of European settlers with close ties to France, and virtually every major French political tendency opposed its independence — including the Socialist and Communist Parties. Paris mobilized tens of thousands of troops into a bid to suppress the revolution. This bloody counterinsurgent war killed close to a million people.
Fanon held that if the Algerian revolution was defeated or failed to bring forth a “new humanism” in response to the dehumanization that European colonialism produced, the newly independent African states would become subjected to the more subtle but no less insidious power of neocolonialism. The Wretched of the Earth is in part a celebration of the outburst of creativity and self-organization that sprang from the Algerian masses in the course of their decade-long armed struggle.
As Fanon wrote on the book’s second page:
Decolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor captured in a virtually grandiose fashion in the spotlight of History.
At the same time, he issued a stark warning that the newly independent states would regress into authoritarianism, ethnic chauvinism, and tribalism if they failed to advance to a social revolution that could uproot the “reified” form of human relations that defined racialized capitalism. As Fanon prophetically stated: “If nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened, if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness, into humanism, then it leads to a dead end.”
Fanon as Militant
Fanon did not originally move to Algeria to become part of a revolution, but rather to take up a position as a psychiatrist at Bilda-Joinville, outside Algiers. Born in the French-ruled Caribbean island of Martinique, he knew little about North African society at the time, and spoke neither Arabic nor Kabyle.
However, he was a fast learner, and after the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched the revolution on November 1, 1954, he became actively engaged as a supporter and later spokesperson of the organization. It is no exaggeration to say that from then until the end of his life, Fanon completely devoted himself to the cause of Algerian independence, serving from 1959 as a roving FLN ambassador to Africa’s sub-Sahara states, which he repeatedly crisscrossed in an effort to solidify support for the revolution.
Nevertheless, Fanon had reasons to be concerned about the direction of the FLN long before he wrote The Wretched of the Earth. Although it projected a unified public face, the FLN, like all liberation movements, contained numerous political tendencies. Some were very much to Fanon’s liking, such as the FLN commander Slimane Dehilés (aka Colonel Sadek). He established close ties with Dehilés, who was seen as part of the FLN’s Marxist wing, as early as 1955.
Even more important was Ramdane Abane. Abane was a secular socialist who became the FLN’s main organizer in Algiers in 1955 and was the architect of the famous Battle of Algiers in 1956–57. Fanon allied himself with Abane, and in many respects viewed him as his political mentor.
At the time of its public emergence at the end of 1954, the FLN issued a statement of objectives, but this “Roneoed Proclamation” was vague about the movement’s ideology, structure, and ultimate goals. Internal divisions about the FLN’s form and direction were simmering. This led it to hold a clandestine conference in Soummam in August 1956 in a bid to resolve such differences.
Fanon did not attend the conference, but he strongly supported the positions adopted there at Abane’s initiative. Those positions included a stress on the precedence of the FLN’s political leadership over its military commanders and on the priority of its “forces of the interior” over those outside Algeria. The conference also resolved that the FLN should make its decisions on a collective, democratic basis, emphasized the need to gain support for its cause in France, and promised equal rights to Algeria’s Jewish and European minorities after independence.
Divisions in the FLN
However, tensions continued to fester between the FLN’s radical, secular-socialist elements and more conservative forces, some of whom favored an Arab-Islamic state. According to Ferhat Abbas, who led the FLN’s provisional government in exile from 1958 to 1961, Abane told the military commanders at one point: “You have created a power that is based on military might, but politics are another matter and cannot be conducted by illiterates and ignoramuses.” On another occasion he said: “They embody the exact opposite of the freedom and democracy we want for an independent Algeria . . . absolute potentates cannot rule unchallenged.” Fanon supported Abane’s position, but many others in the FLN did not.
Ahmed Ben Bella, who later became the first leader of independent Algeria from 1962 to 1965, was an adversary of Abane who opposed the Soummam Conference. By the summer of 1957, he had forced Abane out of the FLN leadership, assisted by Abdelhafid Boussouf and Lakhdar Bentobbal. Fanon strongly disliked the latter two figures. He told a friend that they could not “envisage anything beyond independence” and were “constantly vying for power”:
Ask them what this future Algeria will look like, and they don’t have a clue. The idea of a secular state or of socialism, the idea of man for that matter, these are things that are entirely alien to them . . . . They want to have power in this new Algeria, but to what end? They themselves don’t know. They think that anything that is not a simple truth is dangerous to the revolution.
Despite these differences, Fanon remained completely loyal to the FLN and never publicly voiced such criticisms, even when Abane was mysteriously made to “disappear” — after coming to power in 1962, the FLN admitted that some of his coleaders had murdered him.
To the end of his life, Abane’s death haunted Fanon. Yet he understood that if he openly aired disagreements within the FLN, French imperialism would use this to divide the movement. Fanon accepted the discipline that membership in a revolutionary organization engaged in armed struggle against a powerful enemy seemed to entail.
Fanon’s Vision for Independence
Alice Cherki, who worked closely with Fanon for many years, reported one of his main anxieties in the final years of his life:
Fanon worried about the shape of the new society that would emerge in post-independence Algeria; the prospects were dim — a new bourgeoisie ready to pick up where the others had left off, or a power struggle between different clans, or a religious movement that would succeed in determining the nature of the State.
These concerns directly grounded his arguments in The Wretched of the Earth. The Algerian national liberation struggle was a multi-class movement comprising peasants, urban workers, the “lumpenproletariat,” and the national bourgeoisie. Despite the important role played by members of the latter class in the fight for independence, Fanon held that it would play a retrograde role upon coming to power.
A famous chapter called “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” portrayed the national bourgeoisie in the African context as a parasitic class that lacked either economic power or ideas and was politically insecure. Upon coming to power, it would pursue its narrow self-interest at the expense of the masses:
To our thinking, therefore, the historical vocation of an authentic national bourgeoisie in an underdeveloped country is to repudiate its status as bourgeois and an instrument of capital and to become entirely subservient to the revolutionary capital which the people represent.
Fanon wrote that this raised “the theoretical question, which has been posed for the last fifty years, when addressing the history of the underdeveloped countries, i.e., whether the bourgeois phase can be effectively skipped.”
The “last fifty years” here referred to the period following the Russian Revolution of 1905, when Marxists intensely debated whether it was necessary to have a phase of capitalist development under the leadership of the liberal bourgeoise after the overthrow of Tsarism. Russia was an underdeveloped country at the time, and many Marxists held that it was not ready for an immediate transition to socialism. The Soviet leadership and the Communist International later extended theoretical precepts worked out in the Russian context to other underdeveloped countries such as China.
Fanon brought this historical debate to bear on the African revolutions of his time, arguing that “a bourgeois phase is out of the question.” How did he envision this occurring? Fanon had first addressed this several years earlier in an article for El Moudjahid, the FLN’s newspaper, published from exile in Tunis, to which he regularly contributed. In “The Democratic Revolution,” he wrote: “In Algeria, the war of national liberation is indistinguishable from a democratic revolution.” This democratic revolution has two component parts:
On the one hand, it draws on the essential values of modern humanism concerning the individual taken as a person: freedom of the individual, equality of rights and duties of citizens, freedom of conscience, of assembly, etc. all that permits the individual to blossom, advance, and exercise his personal judgment and initiative freely.
It is hard to imagine a more forceful defense of democratic pluralism. Fanon went further, however, arguing that “on the other hand, the idea of democracy, which runs counter to all oppression and tyranny, is defined as a conception of power. In this case it signifies that the source of all power and sovereignty emanates from the people.” Clearly, he believed that national independence should take the form of a democratic republic that would be under the control of the masses rather than the bourgeoisie. Only such a political framework could enable the revolution to develop to the point of bidding adieu to the inhumanity of capitalist society.
Fanon was fully aware that the transition from “national” to “social” consciousness, from colonial domination to a socialist future, could not be achieved overnight. In order to advance toward that goal, national independence would have to be based on a thoroughgoing democracy that remains completely grounded in the masses — the vast majority of whom in the Algerian case were peasants (by Fanon’s estimate, 82 percent of the population). If that did not occur, he argued, the achievement of national independence would prove to be “an empty shell.”
So how did The Wretched of the Earth envision a democratic transition in which “the source of all power and sovereignty emanates from the people”? Central to this was decentralization. In opposition to the centralized models of development embraced by virtually all socialist and nationalist movements of the time, Fanon argued that in order to ensure that “the demiurge is the people and the magic lies in their hands alone,” the nation would have to “decentralize to the utmost.”
He added that “centralizing everything in the capital should be avoided.” Government officials should not reside in one location but be compelled to move around the country so as to remain in contact with the rural and urban masses. This did not mean that he opposed nationalizing the means of production:
But it is evident that such nationalization must not take on the aspect of rigid state control . . . To nationalize the tertiary sector means organizing democratically the cooperatives for buying and selling. It means decentralizing these cooperatives by involving the masses in the management of public affairs.
Most of all, Fanon argued against the idea of a single party serving as the “vanguard” of the revolution. He stridently proclaimed his opposition to one-party states as “the modern form of the bourgeois dictatorship — stripped of mask, makeup, and scruples, cynical in every respect.” He did not, of course, oppose parties as such, but he insisted that the party, like the nation, must be “decentralized to the utmost.”
Having traveled widely in his role as FLN ambassador, Fanon was fully aware that centralized, single-party states ruled many of the newly independent African nations at the time, including those with a more radical image such as Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana and Sékou Touré’s Guinea. He was surely also aware that that this political model was precisely what the FLN, which declared itself the “sole legitimate representative” of the Algerian people, aspired to construct.
Fanon did not discount the importance of a unified national liberation movement during the struggle for independence; on the contrary, he consistently defended it. But a political form that was necessary at a particular phase of the struggle could become a noose arose its neck after independence had been achieved.
Bashir Abu-Manneh has recently argued that “Wretched is where Fanon would develop his alternative political worldview, in which class politics is primary.” Yet the book insisted that the national struggle would retain primacy so long as colonialism prevailed. He strongly criticized those who suggested that humanity had “got past the stage of nationalist demands . . . we believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national phase.”
In Fanon’s view, the move from national to social consciousness would not leave the former behind, but rather deepen it: “National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that can give us an international dimension.” The transcendence of the racism that defined the colonized world could not be achieved by abstracting from national consciousness or racial pride, but rather by proceeding through them. There was no color-blind path to liberation.
Fanon was no less aware, however, that political elites would misuse racial or national identity to divert the masses from challenging their power and privileges. The Wretched of the Earth was a sharp warning against either approach.
Democracy and Liberation
For all the celebration of Fanon’s work, many writers neglect the depth of his commitment to thoroughgoing democracy. Since he pitched his critique of the national bourgeoisie at a general level and did not name its individual or organizational culprits in Algeria or other African states, it might be easy to see that critique as applying only to such compromisers with neocolonialism as Senegal’s Léopold Senghor in Senegal or Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Ivory Coast.
Yet Fanon also took issue with the radical, leftist tendencies within the African revolutions: “The national bourgeoisie, at the institutional level, skips the parliamentary phase and chooses a national-socialist-type dictatorship.” In the course of this process, those who objected were “bludgeoned and incarcerated into silence and then driven underground.”
Fanon’s commitment to democratic governance that would be thoroughly grounded in the masses informed virtually all aspects of The Wretched of the Earth. He understood, as did Marx, that socialism was “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” However, in contrast with Europe, it was the peasants rather than the proletariat who constituted the “immense majority” in Africa. That is why Fanon singled them out as the revolutionary subject.
The notion that a minoritarian working class led by a “correct” vanguard party could forge a new society was completely alien to him. So was the idea that a peasantry subordinated to a “revolutionary” army that dispensed with democratic governance could accomplish the same task. Fanon staked out a position that put him at odds with many of the prevailing tendencies in both the Marxist and nationalist-revolutionary left.
Was Fanon empirically right about the role of the working class in African countries? The evidence suggests that he was overly hasty in writing it off, although many of his critics were also too quick to presume that peasants could never play an independent political role. Yet this is not the critical question to address in the context of our own times. Rather, we should look at the contemporary relevance of his concept of a democratic transition.
The last sixty years have been replete with examples of hierarchical and authoritarian political tendencies that ignored the need for the kind of democratic transition to socialism that Fanon envisioned. This approach led to one failure after another. Today’s social movements have absorbed the lessons of this experience, consistently adopting nonhierarchical, horizontal forms that are characterized by free and open public debate about all issues facing the movement. In their practice, these movements have brought to life the insights found in Fanon’s new humanism, which makes his thought more compelling than ever.
This does not mean that Fanon provided us with any kind of blueprint for how to surpass bourgeois society. He was still thinking his way through these problems in his final work and left many issues untouched. Although he clearly had Algeria on his mind in every page of The Wretched of the Earth, the book did not explicitly criticize the FLN or its leading figures and tendencies. In one sense, this was understandable: the fight for independence was still ongoing at the time, and Fanon was committed to doing nothing that would weaken it. However, it also reflected a weakness of his historic period.
While a tradition of open discussion had characterized Marxism from its founding years until the early 1920s, the rise of Stalinism left that tradition buried, suppressed, and largely forgotten. This influenced the approach of revolutionaries worldwide, including those, like the FLN, that had no direct connection with the Soviet-led communist movement. Today, thankfully, we face a different reality, which makes it possible to grasp the liberatory content of Fanon’s thought in an altogether new way.