“Fanon was angry. His readers should still be angry too. Angry that the wretched of the earth are still with us. Anger does not in itself produce political programs for change, but it is perhaps the most basic political emotion. Without it, there is no hope,” (Macey 2000, 503).
The past decade has seen an increase in both popular and scholarly interest in the work of Frantz Fanon. What has brought about this revival in interest in Fanon, who is now discussed at numerous conferences and colloquia and whose work is increasingly featured in both academic and media literature? What are the conditions of our contemporary moment that compel some of us to turn towards Fanon and revisit his now classic texts, from Wretched of the Earth to Black Skin, White Masks? And just as importantly, how are misreadings of Fanon’s work contributing to the dilution of the revolutionary nationalist potential inherent in most of his writing? Two examples of seminal works that have been recently published include Lewis Gordon’s What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought and David Macey’s Fanon: A Biography. These works look at Fanon through the events that happened in his life to understand the ways in which he viewed and analyzed social reality. Just as important, although seldom referenced, is work by Neil Lazarus (1999, 2011) and Benita Parry (2004). Lazarus’ chapter on Fanon in his excellent work, The Postcolonial Unconscious and Parry’s analysis of Fanon’s work in her book Postcolonialism: A Materialist Critique constitute important interventions in the way Fanon has been misread by multiple scholars.
Our contemporary moment is characterized by the constant drive towards capitalist accumulation through an increasing process of neoliberalization in the current setting of late capital. This material reality, that is universal but that has a multitude of particularities across the globe, conditions the social categories that produce experience, from class, race, and gender, to (dis)ability and sexuality. However, this has come alongside a tendency within academia to shy away from discussing this very material reality. This is largely due to the turn away from Marxism, as well as to the popularity of both postcolonial and postmodern approaches. The role of the neoliberal university is also important to note, as it pushes for more specialization, more profit, and therefore less critique and less radical thinking. This tendency has meant that although important events such as the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been interpreted through numerous lenses, what is absent is usually analysis employing a lens that engages the global capitalist system and that analyzes social justice with particular attention to neoliberalism and neocolonialism.
This hesitance within academia when it comes to a discussion of neocolonialism (especially through a Marxist lens) is what has driven me towards Fanon as an important scholar within the long tradition of anti-colonial scholarship. It is unfortunate that it has often been scholars who identify as postcolonialists who have rejected the concept of neocolonialism and posited that global relations in our current moment are nuanced and complex, and that we should be wary of repositing a binary of East and West. Here Derrida’s argument that binary oppositions are a violent hierarchy that must first be inverted before they can be decimated is useful, as it shows the need to use binaries solely in order to invert them—without this inversion, they cannot be done away with (Parry 2004, 16). Moreover, as both Benita Parry (2004) and Neil Lazarus (2011) have deftly argued, calls for “complexity” and “nuance” can often serve power by softening the critical edge of critique and should thus be approached with caution. Fanon’s work can certainly be seen as falling within the so-called “trap” of reproducing binaries. He has touched on questions of race, capitalism, nationalism, and neocolonialism, through an analysis that clearly articulates the power relation between the West and the colonial (and neocolonial) world. His background in psychiatry has meant that he often highlighted the psycho-social effects of colonialism and racial domination, even while noting the economic and political processes underlying this domination. Indeed in his work we see the intersecting of these various structures, all through the lens of his involvement in the Algerian war of independence, of which he was a part. His work often relies on psychoanalytical assumptions, although, as Gordon points out, for Fanon the psychoanalytical emphasis is on the racial rather than the sexual.
It seems clear to those of us working within a Marxist framework that many of the problems Fanon addressed in the 1950s and 1960s continue to reproduce themselves in the contemporary moment, albeit at times expressing themselves differently. Indeed the Arab uprisings are a testament to this; would it be possible to argue that neocolonialism, capitalism, and nationalism are not part of the story? (That said, apparently it is indeed possible, judging by the state of Middle East studies today.) Thus it is clear that Fanon remains relevant. The question, then, is: which Fanon? In this article I want to discuss two readings of Fanon’s work that approach him from divergent perspectives and yet still maintain his revolutionary potential. The first is Lewis Gordon’s forthcoming book on Fanon entitled What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought, which highlights the analyses of racial domination present in Fanon’s work. The second is Neil Lazarus’ chapter on Fanon in The Postcolonial Unconscious and his chapter on Fanon in Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World and Benita Parry’s discussion of Fanon in her book Postcolonialism: A Materialist Critique, which focuses on the question of nationalism. These two sets of texts highlight the way in which Fanon can be read differently according to where emphasis is put, and yet still be acknowledged as an anti-colonialist revolutionary thinker whose work remains relevant today.
Lewis Gordon and the question of race
Lewis Gordon begins his book What Fanon Said with a superb introduction that clearly articulates the role of race in how Fanon has been received. He writes,
We should step outside of the tendency to reduce the thought of African intellectuals to the thinkers they study. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was able to comment on black intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire, Fanon, and Léopold Sédar Senghor without becoming ‘Césairian,’ ‘Fanonian,’ or ‘Senghorian’; Simon de Beauvoir could comment on the work of Richard Wright without becoming ‘Wrightian’; Max Weber could comment on the work of W. E. B. Du Bois without becoming ‘Du Boisian.’ Why then is there a different story when black authors comment on their (white) European counterparts? Standard scholarship has explored whether Du Bois is Herderian, Hegelian, Marxian, or Weberian; whether Senghor is Heideggerian; and whether Fanon is every one of the Europeans on whom he has commented – Adlerian, Bergsonian, Freudian, Hegelian, Husserlian, Lacanian, Marxian, Merleau-Pontian, and Sartrean, to name several (2015, 18).
This is related to the tendency to reduce black intellectuals to their biographies; or, in other words, to assume that white intellectuals produce ideas and theory, while black intellectuals relate experiences. The point here is not to simply say Sartre is Fanonian or de Beauvoir Wrightian; the point is to emphasize that the opposite is always the case: that black intellectuals are always read and understood through white intellectuals. Thus from the outset Gordon is setting the stage for the centrality of race in his book. Indeed the first few chapters focus explicitly on the ways in which Fanon discussed race, particularly from a psychological perspective. Fanon’s first brutal experience with racism in France—when a French child told his mother he was afraid when he saw Fanon—plays a central role here, as does Fanon’s analysis of interracial relationships. It is clear that Gordon has a soft spot for Fanon’s work and that he sees its continuing relevance today: there are multiple points throughout the book where he points out how Fanon’s analysis of the Martinique or Algeria of the early twentieth century continues to be relevant today.
Gordon also produces a very nuanced analysis of Fanon’s gender politics, which have been subject to much heated debate. Fanon has been attacked by many white feminists (and non-white feminists working within the liberal tradition) for his comments on Mayotte Capécia’s Je Suis Martiniquaise. These feminists saw Fanon’s analysis of Capécia’s inferiority complex as sexist and dismissed his work in its entirety based on that reading. I would posit that Fanon’s reading of this particular work is not sexist but rather shows the reality of how race and gender intersect to produce complicated forms of desire. Here Capécia’s desire for white men—and white men alone—is seen as a desire to be white, to attain whiteness. It is clear for Fanon that this form of desire is therefore to be criticized. Fanon’s reading is in effect one that analyses gender through a critical race perspective and thus it is no surprise white feminists were uncomfortable with it. While Gordon dismisses claims that Fanon’s reading of Capécia was sexist, he does, however, critique Fanon for his “epistemic sexism.” Here he argues that Fanon’s work is clearly indebted to Simone de Beauvoir, and that despite this he did not cite her or mention her influence in any form. Gordon writes, “I cannot excuse Fanon’s failure to articulate his indebtedness to de Beauvoir…it is clear de Beauvoir not only offered much intellectual sustenance to Fanon’s thought but also that he was well aware of at least her two major contributions at the time of writing Black Skin White Masks. Her presence at the level of ideas but exclusion at that of citation is a form of epistemic sexism,” (Ibid, 58). Thus Gordon condemns readings of Fanon that posit his sexism and dismiss him based on that and yet simultaneously notes that there are traces of sexism in Fanon’s work. In addition, it is useful to note the problematic way in which Fanon at times discussed Algerian women, repositing a Western separation between the public and private sphere and over-emphasizing the role of the veil.
Nevertheless, it is clear, as Gordon demonstrates, that Fanon’s theoretical analysis of the position of Algerian women within the battle for independence is correct. Gordon writes: “Whether Fanon’s portrayal of the facts are accurate does not affect the main point of his analysis: how could liberating Algerian women be taken seriously when the approach to doing so is to impose a structure that makes the women (1) subordinate to all French and other European peoples and (2) only of value to the extent to which their plight could be used to maintain subordination of Algerian men and women,” (Ibid, 150). Fanon’s analysis of the relationship between the French settler-colonizers and Algerian women is a heavily psychoanalytic one, where he posits that white French settlers dreamed of ripping the veils off Algerian women and penetrating them—in other words, deflowering the country (Ibid). What is notable here is the way in which Algerian women are part and parcel of the Algerian revolution, as Fanon himself constantly pointed out. Gordon writes that this shows how these women’s fight for the freedom as women is an outgrowth of struggles against colonization and slavery, a point that has been made by both Assia Djebar in the Algerian context and Angela Davis in the American one (Ibid, 155). This is not to say that women only fought for independence and not for gender justice or an end to patriarchy, but rather to demonstrate the ways in which these various struggles are interconnected.
The unwillingness on the part of many feminists to engage with Fanon should be seen as a missed opportunity to enrich the field of postcolonial feminism. Fanon’s analysis of capitalism, class relations, neocolonialism and nationalism can greatly enhance the work of feminists working in contexts that were formerly colonized. In an excellent article, Ashley Bohrer points out that many anti-imperialist Marxist feminists in particular have used Fanon to discuss colonialism and neocolonialism, noting in particular Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. By looking at the ways in which Fanon influenced these two feminists—who are indeed central to Marxist feminism—Bohrer shows “how his thought is foundational for a contemporary Marxist analysis of capitalist patriarchy,” (2015, 379). Fanon argues that colonialism should, above all, be analyzed from the perspective of economics: “The colonized world is one structured by economic violence, and in particular, the violent and coercive appropriation of the labour of the oppressed,” (Ibid, 380). This economic exploitation is internalized by the colonized through complex webs of socialization. Thus cultural imperialism is part and parcel of economic imperialism.
While Fanon has rarely been labeled a Marxist, it is clear from the above passage that his work contains important analyses of colonial capitalism. I argue that Fanon’s call to “stretch Marxism” should be seen as a useful for feminists working in the Global South because it calls for both a centering of Marxism while at the same time acknowledging the ways in which capitalism conditions life in the colonies (as opposed to the métropoles). In other words, I believe “stretching Marxism” here can be seen as a means of dislodging Eurocentric Marxist accounts that do not consider colonialism as central to capitalist accumulation and that do not account for how capitalism in the postcolony (Mbembé 2001) is different. Here Bohrer’s point that Fanon’s analysis had a lasting effect on Italian Marxist feminism shows the importance of his materialist critiques of capitalism. Silvia Federici, for example, arguably one of the most important feminists today, cites Fanon as one of her major influences alongside Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank. Marxist feminists have long critiqued Marx’s exclusion of the social reproduction carried out by women in the home; feminists such as Federici and Dalla Costa also noted the exclusion of the distinctive form of labour carried out in the colonies (a point that had previously been made by Rosa Luxemburg). Alongside critiques by Marxists from the Global South that center colonialism within capitalist accumulation, it is clear that Marxism can and should be stretched. This is precisely why I believe Fanon remains an important inspiration for feminists working in the Global South: his work on capitalism and colonialism, both at the level of materiality and ideas, is now more crucial than ever in light of the continued dominance of liberal feminism globally.
Lazarus, Parry, and the “Postcolonial” Fanon
So how has Fanon been read by postcolonial theorists, whose work is focused on the Global South? Here the readings have been less than promising. Neil Lazarus begins his chapter in The Postcolonial Unconscious by pointing out that Fanon is an exception among anti-colonial writers writing during the era of decolonization because of the extent to which he has been engaged with by postcolonial scholars. This engagement, however, has often meant a specific kind of reading of his work that has turned it into a “post”-theoretical discourse that addresses subject formation (2011, 122). How to account for this shift in the Fanon that propagated Third World nationalist anti-colonialism to the Fanon in the work of Homi Bhahba and others who focused on the subject? Lazarus writes, “The containment of the historic challenge from the ‘Third World’ that had been expressed in the struggle for decolonization in the post-1945 years must be seen in the light of the global reassertion and consolidation of what (Samir) Amin calls ‘the logic of unilateral capital’,” (Ibid, 124). The triumph of neoliberalism and reassertion of a neo-imperialist world order—with the US at its head—meant that a new reading of Fanon was needed: a ‘postcolonial’ Fanon; “…not only post-colonial, but also post-nationalist, post-liberationist, post-Marxist, and post-modern,” (Ibid). In other words, the opposite of the revolutionary Fanon that preceded this shift.
A second major difference between the first Fanon and the second is the focus on nationalism in the former and its conspicuous absence in the latter. Fanon was greatly influenced by the Algerian war for liberation. This meant that nationalist anti-colonialism, violence, class, ideology, and the ‘Third World’ in general were major themes in most of his work. This goes against the general tendency, however, to see nationalism as a deeply destructive force. As Benita Parry has noted, there is a tendency to disparage nationalist discourses of resistance within postcolonial studies (2012, 35). More than simply disparaging nationalism, Parry rightly points out that the field of postcolonialism often analyzes colonialism as a cultural event, mediated through texts, rather than focusing on the concrete, material, socio-economic and state-based processes that also made up colonialism. Indeed, reading Fanon, it is difficult to understand how he is been appropriated by a field so heavily influenced by postmodernism (postcolonialism) given his emphasis on precisely the material, the socio-economic, and the national.
Regarding nationalism, Lazarus writes: “Some contemporary theorists of ‘postcoloniality’ have attempted to build upon Fanon’s denunciation of bourgeois nationalism. Yet Fanon’s actual standpoint poses insuperable problems for them. One fundamental difficulty derives from the fact that far from representing an abstract repudiation of nationalism as such, Fanon’s critique of bourgeois nationalist ideology is itself delivered from an alternative nationalist standpoint,” (1999, 78). In other words, although many within postcolonial studies view nationalism as a thoroughly modern and negative force, Fanon instead saw it as a means to liberation while simultaneously warning us of the pitfalls of bourgeois nationalism. The national project could also become a socialist one, rather than a capitalist one. This emphasis on capitalism and imperialism further distinguishes Fanon from those within postcolonial studies who see Marxism as being of little use to contemporary analysis. What I find especially important here is that Fanon’s anti-colonialist nationalism allowed for a bridge to an internationalism that was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist in nature. This bridge is precisely what is missing in much of the work being done today.
I conclude with a quote from Lazarus about the importance of anti-colonialism: “It is important to try and keep alive the memory of the ‘revolutionary heroism’ that was everywhere in evidence in the struggle for national liberation. Even more important is to insist that the concrete achievements of this struggle are still intact and continue to provide a vital resource for present-day social and cultural practice. It is not only that the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world were changed decisively by the experience of anti-colonial struggle. It is also that these changes are irreversible. No matter how great have been the defeats that have had to be endured since decolonization, the perduring solidaristic significance of the anti-colonial struggle has not been erased,” (1999, 120-121). This quote, as well as Lazarus’ and Parry’s readings of Fanon, show that for them his greatest contribution has been to the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular the Algerian war of independence. This is the frame they read him through, and to do this they have engaged in much-needed critiques of postcolonial attempts to sanitize Fanon and render him part of a postmodern canon that is often severely lacking in material analysis. For Lewis Gordon, Fanon’s greatest contribution appears to be his work on race and the ways in which the world is structured by anti-Black racism. Moreover, where Gordon emphasizes the centrality of Fanon for scholars and activists fighting against anti-Black racism, David Macey instead emphasizes that Fanon’s allegiance, first and foremost, was to the Algerian war of independence. Thus we see here three slightly different framings of Fanon: one where Fanon is an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist revolutionary, one where Fanon is a global anti-Black racism scholar; and one where Fanon is above all an Algerian revolutionary. This is not to say that all of these writers do not acknowledge the many dimensions of Fanon’s work. Parry and Lazarus write about Fanon’s views on race and his deep commitment to the Algerian struggle; and Gordon affirms the centrality of Algeria for Fanon as well as his clear materialist critiques of the global system. The point is simply that each writer places the emphasis somewhere else; each reads Fanon through a different lens.
Some may argue that this ability to read Fanon in such diverse ways is a benefit; but this would fall into the liberal trap of seeing pluralism as constructive. Indeed as I have shown, Lazarus’ and Parry’s demonstration of how postcolonialists such as Bhabha have mis-read Fanon shows the dangers of accepting all readings as equally valid. Looking back at Fanon’s work, it is clear that there are central themes that cannot be ignored: his anti-racism, his nationalism, his class analysis, and, above all, his incessant call to others to fight against oppression.
- For an excellent review of this, see: Klein, Naomi. The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Macmillan, 2007.
- For a detailed analysis of this see: Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. “Anti-black femininity and mixed-race identity: Engaging Fanon to reread Capécia.” Fanon: A critical reader (1996): 155-162.
- For a detailed discussion, see: Lazarus 2011, 136-137.
- It is important to note here that Edward Said is not seen as part of the trend within postcolonial theory to subjugate the material.
Gordon, Lewis. What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. Fordham University Press, 2015.
Lazarus, Neil. Nationalism and cultural practice in the postcolonial world. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Lazarus, Neil. The Postcolonial Unconscious. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Macey, David. Frantz Fanon: a life. Granta Books, 2000.
Mbembé, J-A. On the postcolony. Vol. 41. Univ of California Press, 2001.
Parry, Benita. Postcolonial studies: a materialist critique. Routledge, 2004.