Franz Fanon’s 1961 revolutionary classic offers a searing insight into the effects of colonial violence and the necessity of reciprocating this force to achieve liberation.
Born to a middle-class family in the Caribbean French colony of Martinique, by the time he wrote this magnum opus he had joined the Algerian National Liberation Front as a physician and psychiatrist in support of Algeria’s struggle for independence.
Any reader fond of Chairman Mao’s works will be at home with Fanon’s analysis of how the worker’s nature differs in the countries of the colonised and the coloniser. In fact, the portrayal of the urban colonised workers as a form of native bourgeois leaves one with a very low expectation of that group’s revolutionary potential. Alternatively, the peasantry, who still outnumber urban workers in most colonised countries, are shown to have huge revolutionary capability.
Not only is this argument made convincingly, but presented beautifully. Space is given for specific songs and culture of the African peasantry, and it’s impossible not to sympathise with the descendants of those who first defended that land from the European invaders. This emotionally resonant characterisation and the existential angle from which it is addressed is what sets Wretched of the Earth apart from Mao’s works. It is less like an extensive instruction manual and more like an enlightening poem.
In no way does its artistry undermine its educational value to anti-colonialists. Fanon is clear throughout that the struggle for decolonisation is wrought with brutality. The contradictory pacifist rhetoric of the colonisers and reformists is decimated and shown to have a short expiry date. “The art of politics is simply transformed into the art of war, the political militant is the rebel. To fight the war and to take part in politics: the two things become one and the same” Fanon writes. Sound familiar to something about politics and the barrel of a gun?
The topics here; colonialist violence, pan-africanism, the native bourgeoisie’s inability to innovate, are not typically accessible. Too often are potential comrades gatekept by academic jargon that isn’t approachable to the majority who can learn far easier through their revolutionary action. Yet, Fanon strikes a perfect balance. This hasn’t been written by someone locked in a university in response to other academics. Fanon was a committed member of the revolutionary cause and it is written for those he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with. Anyone who’s been turned off from theory by the bottomless pits of Das Kapital and the like will find respite here, and just as much to learn.
The final pages have proven to be prescient. Warning the rest of the world not to follow Europe’s journey into an “abyss” in 1961, if Fanon saw Europe’s grey neoliberalism and entrenched capitalist realism as we slide away from the hopes of the mid-century, he would surely feel his predictions have been validated.
And just as Fanon inspires hope in a new world sourced from Europe’s former victims, sixty years later, readers may finish with a new optimism that those who’ve overthrown colonialism may lead us into a better world.