Rethinking Fanon: the Continuing Dialogue. Edited by Nigel C Gibson.
Humanity Press, New York, 1999
Reviewed by David Black
Franz Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique in 1925. After serving with the Free French forces in World War Two and afterwards he made contact with other Black intellectuals in Paris who constituted the “Negritude” movement and were influenced by existentialism.
Trained as a psychiatrist, Fanon took a post at a hospital in Algeria and in 1953 he wrote his first major book, ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. In 1956 he joined the Algerian independence movement, the FLN. Fanon died in December 1961, just before independence was won.
This anthology edited by Nigel Gibson, entitled ‘Rethinking Fanon’, features 16 contributors. It covers Fanon’s politics and revolutionary activities, his philosophy of a “new humanism”, his contribution to psychiatry and cultural criticism, and his views on gender and nationalism.Subject and Object – Colonizer and Colonized
Edward Said, in ‘Travelling Theory Revisited’, speculates that Fanon’s most famous book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, is in part a dialogue with George Lukacs’ 1922 analysis of Reification in ‘History and Class Consciousness’. Lukacs examines commodity-fetishism in capitalist society as the basis of the process by which human creativity is fragmented and quantified. Said claims that “Fanon seems to have read Lukacs’ book and taken from its reification chapter an understanding of how even in the most confusing and heterogenous of situations, a vigorous analysis of one central problematic could be relied on to yield the most extensive understanding of the whole.”
According to Lukacs, the alienating social reality is manifested philosophically in the split between Subject and Object. Although this is an age-old problem in western philosophy, Lukacs reformulates it in the context of capitalist commodity production. He examines how the most creative of activities – labour – becomes objectified as alienation, as abstract labour, and how the the subject – the worker – is treated like an object who exists for capital as merely as the source of value.
Lukacs’ critique centres on neo-kantianism, which places an unbridgeable gulf between subjective cognition and the real world; and which declares that the dynamic social process in its totality is an unknowable “thing-in-itself”. Lukacs concludes that the entire impasse of Western philosophy and bourgeois thought in general could only be resolved from “the standpoint of the proletariat”.
Why the proletariat? Lukacs says, in ‘Reification’, that the working class, unlike any other class, is in a position to transcend the alienation, because in the case of the worker, consciousness becomes "the self-consciousness of the commodity". The immediacy of the worker’s alienated existence "turns out to be the consequence of a multiplicity of mediations", which are grasped by the workers as a class. The working class, in making itself the subject of history, brings about "an objective structural change in the object of knowledge".
For Fanon, the problematic of subject-object becomes one of colonizer-colonized. Fanon sees his task, not as the the reconciliation of subject and object within western civilisation, but rather as leaving that “civilization” behind:
“Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking about Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them… in all corners of the globe.”
Whereas Lukacs says, in the best hegelian-marxist manner, that “It is the essence of dialectical method that concepts which are false are later transcended”, Fanon, says Said “will answer that there is nothing abstract or conceptual about colonialism”, which has robbed the colonozed people of what is “the most concrete”: their land, bread and dignity. In Fanon’s words:
“As far as the native is concerned: morality is very concrete; it is to silence the settler’s defiance, to break his flaunting violence – in a word, to put him out of the picture”.
The traditional Left will protest, while stressing their opposition to imperialism and their support self-determination, that Fanon did not recognize that a lot of the “settlers” in French Algeria were organized into trade unions, with connections to the ‘workers parties’ in Europe. Surely, the Left will say, the ‘correct position’ should have been along the lines of ‘Black and White Unite and Fight’.
However, as Tony Martin points out in ‘Rescuing Fanon From His Critics’, Algeria before the Revolution was 80 per cent peasant; and most of the remainder were unemployed. There were only about 300,000 workers, most of whom still “had one foot in the village”.
Martin also points out that Fanon “accepts Marx’s analysis of the peasantry for the time and place Marx was describing” (France in the mid-19th century): “The main difference, for Fanon, is the fact that the individualistic behaviour Marx ascribed to the peasantry has now become the hallmark of the colonized proletariat [of French Algeria]”. Futhermore, Fanon argues in an almost “leninist” fashion that the reforms were won by the labour movements of European from capital to the same extent that the colonialist state exploited its occupied territories.
Leftist critics of Fanon are even more taken aback by his supposed designation of the lumpen proletariat as revolutionary – contrary to Marx’s opinion based on the counter-revolutionary role of the lumpen in 1848-51. But as Martin says, for Fanon “the lumpenproletariat is but an urban extension of the peasantry. And it is for them, more than any other element, that the revolutionary violence will prove a magnificent rehabilitation… However, the difference with Marx must not be overstressed, for Fanon recognizes that, if not mobilized, the lumpenproletariat will be used against the revolution.”
Emmanuel Hansen in ‘Portrait of a Revolutionary’ says that “Sartre, though regarding negritude as revolutionary, nevertheless described it as ‘anti-racist racism’ and pointed out its limitations, indicating that is only a movement in the dialectic”. Sartre, a great friend of Fanon and firm supporter of the Algerian Revolution, expressed these views in his introduction to ‘Black Orpheus’, an anthology of Black poetry.
Lou Turner and John Alan, in ‘Fanon, World Revolutionary’ quote Fanon’s reaction to “Sartre’s analysis of class as the ‘universal and abstract’ and race as the ‘concrete and particular’, which led Sartre to the conclusion that ‘negritude appears as the minor term of a dialectical progression’.”:
“Orphee noir is a date in the intellectualization of the experience of being black, And Sartre’s mistake was not only to seek the source of the source but in a certain sense to block that source… he was reminding me that my blackness was only a minor term. In all truth, in all truth I tell you, my shoulders slipped out of the framework of the world, my feet could no longer feel the touch of the ground.”
As with Lukacs, Sartre restates the problematic of “western civilization” and its “dialectic”. Fanon however, is in a fight where “two zones [colononizer and colonized] are opposed”, but “not in the service of a higher unity… they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for one of the terms is superfluous”. The colonial revolution “is not a rational confrontation of points of view. It is not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute.”
Nigel Gibson draws attention to Raya Dunayevskaya’s claim that although Hegel presents absolutes as syntheses (though also as “concrete totality”), for both Marx and Fanon the absolutes end in “total diremptions – absolute, irreconcilable contradictions” (Dunayevskaya has in mind the “absolute” of capital accumulation versus human emancipation in Marx’s ‘Capital’). As Gibson puts it, the absolutes, in this sense, “are at the heart of the program of ‘complete disorder’ put forward by decolonization.”
Fanon doesn’t “apply marxism”; instead, like Marx, he rediscovers dialectic for his own time and place. Said points out that, just as Lukacs and Marx saw the proletariat’s self-liberation as self-abolition, so Fanon saw “national consciousness” becoming, not nationalism – a “sterile formalism” and a “blind ally” - but a New Humanism.
Counter-revolution within the Revolution
Fanon’s relationship with the Kabyle revolutionary, Ramdane Abane, was, according to Lou Turner “his single most important intellectual link to the leadership circles of the FLN”. As political head of the FLN underground in the Algiers region, Abane was “strategically positioned within radical intellectual circles to develop the international, secular, democratic perspectives that became the hallmark of the Soumman program and the FLN… After Abane’s death [in 1958 at the hands of FLN rivals] the ideological void would be filled by Arab nationalist and Islamicist tendencies.”
Turner challenges those critics and biographers who see in Fanon’s thesis on the revolution and the party in The Wretched of the Earth only an abstract belief in the spontaneity of the masses or his supposed “metaphysics of violence”. Turner writes of Fanon’s turn towards the peasantry, following the destruction of the FLN networks in the Battle of Algiers:
“with the urban mass movement checked and with the peasantry having military but not political representation in the FLN, the bourgeois nationalists in league with the colonels assumed control of the FLN and the provisional government."
The former leading exponents of Negritude, such as Aime Cesaire of Martinique and Leopold Senghor of Senegal, became political leaders in their own countries only to compromise with French Imperialism. By this time – the late-1950s - Fanon was turning his critique onto those who he knew would become imperialism’s new collaborators in the post-colonial/neo-colonial period.
‘Tradition’ and Resistance
About a quarter of the book consists of contributions by feminists on the ambivalence in Fanon’s writings on the woman question, including essays by Diana Fuss and Anne McClintock which investigate Bhahba’s psycho-analytical approach, as inspired by Jacques Lacan. The discussion on gender produces the most controversy; which is hardly surprising considering the current situation of women in present-day Algeria, caught between the oppression of the corrupt FLN regime and fundamentalist terrorism. Zouligha’s essay on ‘Challenging the Social Order – Women’s Liberation in Contempory Algeria’ doesn’t mention Fanon but gives a chilling yet inspiring account which helps put the dabate in a present-day context in all its urgency.
McClintock finds no concept of woman as agency in Fanon’s writings and Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas implicates Fanon himself in the transformation-into-opposite of the Revolution. She further alleges that he, along with the famous film he inspired (‘The Battle of Algiers’), created a myth regarding womens’ actual involvement – and she has all the details of how women were marginalised by the FLN. Taking off from Helie-Lucas’ analysis, T Denean Sharpley-Whiting points out that “the veil was rarely worn by practicing Muslim Algerian women in the rural areas where a great deal of the fighting took place. And Kabyle women never donned the haik. Prior to 1957, the veil had been abandoned by the women in the city… The public unveiling of Algerian women to battle hymn ‘Vive l’Algerie Francaise’ prompted Algerian women to redon the veil”.
As Helie-Lucas says, this was hardly voluntary, since not to don the veil under such circumstances would be seen as betrayal of the nation. However, Sharpley-Whiting points out that “Fanon relates that the rending of the veil has particularly sexualizing, indeed violently sexual, antiwoman implications for the Algerian woman in the male colonialist imagination… What he unveils is the hypocrisy of the male colonizer’s desire to unveil/liberate the woman only to imprison her in steorotypes that render her violable, more ripe for rape.”
In Fanon’s words “To the colonialist offensive against the veil, the colonized opposes the cult of the veil”. The Revolution produced a “new dialectic of the body of the revolutionary woman and the world”. Sharpley-Whiting’s defence of Fanon is a critical one: “An ethics of feminist criticism should allow one to critically engage and expose flaws in Fanon’s writings… to acknowledge and put to use the best of Frantz Fanon.”
The issue of “Fanon and the Veil” is further discussed by Gibson in ‘Radical Mutations’. Fanon says that a “whole universe of resistances” develops “to justify the rejection of the occupier’s presence”. In the first instance, Gibson says, this is characteristic of a “Manichean stance”. Gibson argues that the “traditional” offers “a refuge from from colonial predations… Such resistances were characteristic of the whole period of resistance up to 1954. Fanon says that the native even rejects values which might “be objectively worth choosing”.
This calls to mind another movie with Fanonian resonances: in ‘Apocalypse Now’ the crazed special forces commander played by Marlon Brando speaks admiringly of the Nietzchean “will” of the guerrillas who hacked off the arms of children who had been vaccinated by US Army doctors. What doesn’t come across in that film, but is clear in Gibson analysis in this book, is that that doctors in such situations are far from “neutral”. Fanon writes of the French doctors, “attached to various torture centers [who] intervene after every session to put the tortured back into condition for new sessions”. As Gibson says, in the atmosphere of colonial oppression, “there is a real difficulty in being ‘objective.’ There is no objective truth.” And as Fanon says in his essay, “Medicine and Colonialism”, “truth objectively expressed is constantly vitiated by the lie of the colonial situation”; furthermore, “every qualification is perceived by the occupier as an invitation to perpetuate the oppression, as a confession of congentital impotence” in the face of the “close an contagious death” of endemic famine and underemployment.
In Gibson’s reading of Fanon:
“Whereas the first stage of anticolonial resistance expresses the contradictory interrelation of ‘tradition’ and resistance, the second stage expresses the breaking up of this interrelation.”
Crucially, Fanon says:
“The struggle does not give back to the national culture its former values and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or content of the people’s culture.”
In this “fighting culture”, however, Fanon says “everything becomes possible”, even a “science depoliticized” and in the service of the people.
Gibson also writes about Fanon’s views on how the Algerian masses reacted to the advent of revolutionary radio as providing “a fascinating example of a dialectic of revolution and the leap from Manicheanism”.
Henry Louis Gates Jnr, who is well known in Britain for his lavish BBC documentaries which presented a “Black American view of Africa”, contributes an overview of Fanon’s status in US academia as a “global theorist”, not of revolution, but of “literary critical criticism” with “colonial discourse theory”, as expounded by Benita Parry and Homi Bhaba (who also contribute to this book).
Gibson points out that for Bhaba “the more subversive Fanon is not found in dialectical transcendence but in the explorations of the gaps created by shifting and crossing Manichean boundaries… there is no essential power structure, no grand event, only the political day-to-day”. Gibson argues that paradoxically, post-colonial Africa – the actually existing, present-day Africa Fanon warned his readers might come about – is intimately connected with postmodernism, for “despite the hybrid appearance of the premodern with modernity, Africa never became ‘modern’ in the sociological sense.”
In Africa today: “capitalism rehashes the ‘rosy dawn’ of its primitive accumulation over and over again with the native ‘middleman’ playing a familiar role. Yet despite the postmodernist’s insights into Africa’s present it erases Africa’s real multifacted anticolonialist struggles and closes off the historical context of Africa’s present predicament. Africa is still playing out the problematic of decolonization.” Gibson believes that there is a “marxist-humanist” dimension to Fanon which can still speak to those still seeking an emanicipatory course in the struggle of the Third World. Hopefully at some stage he will bring out a full-length study on the subject. In the meantime if you want the best selection of readings of Fanon on offer, this is it.
Hobgoblin #3 2002