Frantz Fanon was only 36 when he died but in his short life he wrote one of the classic anti-colonial works of all time. The Wretched of the Earth became one of the best-known revolutionary texts of that stormy decade. It was first published in France in 1961: an extract in May, exactly 60 years ago, in the magazine Les Temps Modernes, then the whole book in December.
Fanon was born into a relatively privileged background in the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean. He left, aged 18, to join the Free French forces towards the end of World War 2 and went on to study medicine and psychiatry in France. In 1953 he accepted a hospital post in the French colony of Algeria at a time when the movement for independence was gaining momentum.
Armed struggle commenced in the next year and Fanon found himself treating both wounded French soldiers and Algerians, some of whom had been tortured. The experience persuaded him to throw in his lot with the anti-colonial movement. He joined the FLN (National Liberation Front — the Algerian independence movement), resigned from his hospital in 1956, and moved to Tunisia (which served as an exile base for the FLN). There, he helped to train Algerian medical personnel and edit El Moudjahid (“Holy Warrior”), the FLN’s news bulletin.
Later, he served for a time as the FLN representative in Ghana.
Suffering from leukaemia, he was moved to the USA for treatment but died late in 1961. Algeria won its independence in the following year.
The Wretched of the Earth was anything but a humble reasoned plea for an end to colonialism; it was a loud, angry, call to arms. Fanon saw armed struggle as integral to the winning of independence and did not shy away from advocating violence,
“At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect”.
In that spirit of uncompromising militancy that Fanon praised the 1954 victory of the Viet-Minh (the early name for the “Vietcong”) against the French at Dien Bien Phu. He argues that much more was needed in the anti-colonial struggle than spontaneous outbursts of resistance. To underline the point he drew the readers’ attention to the 1947-48 uprising of the Malagasy people (of Madagascar), largely unarmed, who were slaughtered in their thousands by the French colonial authorities.
He was scathing about the emerging bourgeoisie of the colonial countries, their attempts to strike a deal with the departing or departed powers, and their copycat European style parliamentary politics, which all too often ended up as a hollow sham. He called for the oppressed to renew their sense of history and their own worth. As a trained psychiatrist he was deeply concerned about the mental disorders brought on by colonialism — a sense of inferiority, depression and the after-effects of torture, widely employed in Algeria.
There were gaps. Fanon said little about the position of women in colonial societies and seemed at ease with Islam as one of the prime voices of the FLN. Much of the vigour of the anti-colonial resistance and culture that he advocated so powerfully and eloquently was, after independence, lost to regimes that, often, including in Algeria, became one party states and bywords for dictatorship and corruption.
Thirty years after his death, Algeria was convulsed by a bloody civil war between the government and Islamic fundamentalists after the FLN government annulled the election of 1991 which looked like allowing the Islamic Salvation Front to sweep to power.
Why the revolutionary potential of the anti-colonial struggle, in Africa and elsewhere, dissipated like that is a big question. However, it is the question that constantly looms over a re-reading of The Wretched of the Earth.
Ironically his birthplace, Martinique, today is not independent. It has the status of a French Overseas Department. In other words, it is part of France.
That might suggest that Fanon’s political goals and his analysis were wasted or misdirected, yet he spoke to thousands, probably millions, of people in the so-called “Third World” with a power and directness rarely heard before or since. His voice remains the voice of the oppressed.
The words of the opening paragraph of his conclusion are worth repeating. They echo down to us through the years. “Come, then, comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute”.