Adam Shatz in the LRB:
Author of the anti-racist jeremiad Black Skin, White Masks; spokesman for the Algerian Revolution and author of The Wretched of the Earth, the ‘bible’ of decolonisation; inspiration to Third World revolutionaries from the refugee camps of Palestine to the back streets of Tehran and Beirut, Harlem and Oakland; founder, avant la lettre, of post-colonialism; hero to the alienated banlieusards of France, who feel as if the Battle of Algiers never ended, but simply moved to the cités: Frantz Fanon has been remembered in a lot of ways, but almost all of them have foregrounded his advocacy of resistance, especially violent resistance.
Fanon was not a pacifist, but the emphasis on his belief in violence – or ‘terrorism’, as his adversaries would say – has obscured the radical humanism that lies at the heart of his work. In her 1970 study, On Violence, addressed in part to Fanon’s student admirers, Hannah Arendt pointed out that both his followers and his detractors seemed to have read only the first chapter – also entitled ‘On Violence’ – of The Wretched of the Earth. There Fanon described how violence could serve as a ‘cleansing force’ for the colonised, liberating them not only from their colonial masters, but from their inferiority complex. Decolonisation, he suggested, was nothing less than the ‘creation of new men’ – a notion much in vogue among 1960s revolutionaries, from Che Guevara to Malcolm X. The Wretched of the Earth has few of the autobiographical, elegiac cadences of his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, but explores the same relationship between racism, colonialism, mental illness and freedom. Crucially, it ends with a harrowing account of the mental disorders Fanon encountered as a psychiatrist during the Algerian War of Independence. The argumentative force of this closing chapter, and its position in the book, throw doubt on the first chapter. Violence was never Fanon’s remedy for the Third World; it was a rite of passage for colonised communities and individuals who had become mentally ill, in his view, as a result of the settler-colonial project, itself saturated with violence and racism. Like Walter Benjamin, Fanon believed that for the oppressed, the ‘“state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’, and that his revolutionary duty was to help ‘bring about a real state of emergency’. Fanon’s clinical work was the practice that underpinned his political thought. He was only slightly exaggerating when he estimated that there were ‘more than ten million men to treat’ in Algeria. For Fanon, colonialism was a perversity. The coloniser and the colonised were locked together – and constructed – by a fatal dialectic. There could be no reciprocity, only war between the two, until the latter achieved freedom.