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Searching for Frantz Fanon

Was the elusive revolutionary thinker naive, or ahead of his time?

By Tomiwa Owolade

Napoleon said that to understand a man you need to know what was happening in the world when he was 20. Frantz Fanon turned 20 in 1945. As the Second World War ended, Fanon was defending the republican values of France against fascism. But France soon betrayed him, and the rest of his life was about trying to come to terms with that betrayal; he never did and died 16 years after the war.

Few 20th-century intellectuals are as venerated as Fanon. His 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, was the Bible of liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael called Fanon one of his “patron saints”. Another radical activist, Eldridge Cleaver, claimed “every brother on a rooftop” could quote from Fanon. Today you are as likely to learn about him in an English literature university course as in history or politics. 

Like many prophets, Fanon was a restless and itinerant traveller. Adam Shatz’s new biography, The Rebel’s Clinic: the Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, is defined by the themes of home and estrangement, settlement and exile. Fanon was born in the West Indian island of Martinique, trained as a doctor in mainland France, worked in Algeria, travelled throughout the rest of Africa, and died in America.

This is not the first major Fanon biography this century. In fact, Shatz reviewed David Macey’s 2001 book, Frantz Fanon: A Biography, for the New York Times. He described that as “the best, the most intellectually rigorous and the most judicious” iteration yet. So why write another? Shatz’s book distinguishes itself by connecting Fanon’s thought to the livewire debates facing us in 2024.

Fanon has been invoked, Shatz writes in his book, by “pan-African and pan-Arab, secular and Islamist, Marxist and liberal”, and his work has been used for both “defences of identity politics and critiques of identity politics”. Contemporary liberal writers such as Thomas Chatterton Williams enlist Fanon in the case for a post-racial politics. Afro-pessimist writers like Frank B Wilderson III use Fanon to advance their idea that white supremacy is an immutable force. These invocations are as varied as Fanon’s cosmopolitan life. But it is less clear where or how to situate the real Fanon among them. What Shatz aims to do is make sense of Fanon’s elusive character and ideas.

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Shatz has written about African American, French and Arab culture and politics for a wide range of publications, from the London Review of Books (where he is US editor) to the New York Review of Books. He is an admirer of Fanon, but not an uncritical one. In his 2023 essay collection, Writers and Missionaries, Shatz writes that: “Irony, scepticism, doubt and detachment are increasingly treated as expressions of elitism or privilege, but I have always found them to be necessary instruments of radical critique.” By radical, he means the older definition: trying to get to the root of something. This is his approach to Fanon.

Fanon was born a Frenchman. The first three words he learned to spell were “Je suis français“. His friend Alice Cherki said he “spoke the most impeccable French – more French than the French.” Martinique, his homeland, was first colonised by France in 1635. In 1946, it turned from being a colony into an overseas department of metropolitan France. 

He was also bourgeois. His father was a customs inspector, his mother was a shopkeeper. He grew up with servants and “a weekend home outside Fort-de-France”. His father’s ancestors were free, property-owning people; his mother had white ancestors. And he studied at the prestigious Lycée Victor Schoelcher, alongside Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet and politician. 

Shatz describes Fanon as “something of a wild child”. He got into brawls and at one point cut another boy’s face with a razor blade. He used to steal marbles and sneak into cinemas without paying. His outlaw streak was evident later in his life and is reflected in his writing. It was a crucial part of his personality; he possessed what the French call an écorché vif, an abrasive temper, an intense energy. 

Growing up, Fanon did not see himself as black. He was a French West Indian. As members of the vieilles colonies, many Martinican people, especially from bourgeois families, were valued more than the inhabitants of France’s newer African colonies such as Senegal and Chad. Many French West Indians even served as administrators in colonial Africa. And during the Second World War, they wore the same uniform as soldiers from metropolitan France. African soldiers wore a different uniform; they were seen as less civilised than their West Indian counterparts.

France fell to Nazi Germany in June 1940. Admiral Georges Robert, the high commissioner for the French West Indies, “declared his allegiance to Marshal Philippe Pétain”. Fanon was one of the more than 4,000 Martinicans who joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Army. “Most of the soldiers in De Gaulle’s army,” Shatz writes, “came from the colonies: the Republic was saved by the subalterns of France’s vast overseas empire.”

For Fanon, to fight against fascism was to defend the honour of France, and he described officials of the collaborative Vichy regime in Martinique as “false Frenchman, indeed Germans in camouflage”. This Gaullist position had been instilled in him by his upbringing. As Shatz puts it, Fanon looked to “the ‘true’ France of the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, not the France of Vichy. His subsequent rejection of the motherland would be that of a disappointed son.”

He was disappointed because he didn’t see himself as a black man but many people in France did. “Look maman, a nègre!”, a white child shouted at Fanon when he was in Lyon. Shatz observes: “What bothered Fanon more than anything wasn’t so much being mocked, or even being the subject of condescending praise, as simply being noticed for his colour: being seen (as a member of a racialised collective), and at the same time not seen at all (as an individual).”

Black Skins, White Masks, published in 1952, was Fanon’s attempt to offer a humanist alternative to French racism. He claimed to be striving “for a new Humanism” and argued that “an individual must endeavour to assume the universalism inherent in the human condition”. His aim was “to enable better relations between Blacks and Whites”.

Fanon was advocating for the ideals that led him to fight for France in the Second World War – or, to borrow De Gaulle’s phrase, a certain idea of France. As Shatz writes, it “was the first and last book in which Fanon fully identified himself as a Frenchman”. Black Skin, White Masks sold poorly and was out of print by the time Fanon died.

When Fanon wrote the book that defined his legacy, The Wretched of the Earth, he had given up hope that France could embody justice and equality, liberty and fraternity. He had disavowed a French identity in favour of an Algerian one. But as Shatz notes, when Fanon set out for Algeria in 1953, to work as a psychiatrist in a hospital in Blida, “he was not leaving France; he was merely crossing an ocean”. Algeria was conquered in 1830 and became an integral part of France in 1848. More than a million people of European descent lived in Algeria as French citizens, comprising more than 10 per cent of its population. 

Algeria’s Muslim population – consisting of indigenous ethnic groups such as Arabs, Berbers and Tuaregs – faced discrimination from the country’s Europeans. Muslims were educated in different schools, and only a small minority were literate in French or had any sort of education at all. There were signs on beaches proclaiming “no dogs or Arabs”. The founding of Blida-Joinville, the hospital Fanon joined, was inspired by the work of Antoine Porot, a French psychiatrist who believed Algerian Muslims were “hysterical, predisposed to criminality and intellectually inferior”. They were treated as animals, not patients.

France was at war with Algeria between 1954 and 1962, and Fanon was an unlikely ally of Algeria’s Muslims. He couldn’t speak any of the languages of Algeria’s indigenous communities – he had to rely on translators when he was a doctor serving his patients – and he was an atheist, not a Muslim.

Fanon was smoking a cigarette in August 1956, when an Algerian man came and took it off his mouth because the FLN (National Liberation Front) had boycotted French cigarettes. Fanon loved the fact that the man mistook him for a Muslim. Unlike the moment when a child publicly called him a nègre, this incident confirmed him as part of the tribe, not an outsider.

He strongly identified with Algerians because they refused to assimilate to France. They were not, he thought according to Shatz, “like the West Indians, who aspired to whiteness and measured themselves – their achievements, their speech, their worth – by the white man’s standards… they persisted in saying no to the French: to their medicine, to their lifestyle, to their food, to their judicial system – to the amputation of their identity that colonialism sought to inflict.”

But what actually led to Algeria’s independence was not the high-minded anti-colonialism Fanon expressed, it was the reactionary logic of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle oversaw the separation of Algeria from France, claiming it was pointless trying to assimilate Muslims into France. “Have you seen the Muslims with their turbans and their djellabahs?” he asked. “The Arabs are Arabs, the French are French.”

Shatz vividly conveys the brutality of this war. He writes how the French army “disappeared Algerian activists, raped women and dropped napalm on civilians”. They also engaged in torture and extrajudicial execution. Shatz quotes the journalist Claude Bourdet, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, who described the French as using “Gestapo tactics”. But Shatz doesn’t exonerate the FLN, whose “struggle was at once a heroic insurgency against the French army and a dirty war waged against civilians – many of them fellow Algerians”.

Fanon despised anything that looked like compromise. He believed the oppressed needed to seize power for themselves, by affirming their own values, not the values of the coloniser, through force if necessary. Fanon passionately believed in anti-colonial violence; this is his biggest legacy. 

On this, he broadly agreed with his intellectual hero, Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote in his preface to The Wretched of the Earth that “violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted”. Malcolm X echoed Fanon’s support of violence to fight racial injustice. In a 1965 speech, Malcolm said: “We declare our right on this Earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this Earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” In fact, the phrase “by any means necessary” was used earlier by Fanon in a speech he gave in Ghana in 1960: “Violence in everyday behaviour, violence against the past that is emptied of all substance, violence against the future, for the colonial regime presents itself as necessarily eternal. We see, therefore, that the colonised people, caught in a web of three-dimensional violence, a meeting point of multiple, diverse, repeated, cumulative violences, are soon logically confronted by the problem of ending the colonial regime by any means necessary.”

Fanonist violence was also powerfully expressed in the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. Gillo Pontevorco, the director of the film, greatly admired Fanon. Shatz writes that several scenes in the film were directly inspired by Fanon’s writings and that he “would surely have admired Pontevorco’s insistence on the necessity of violence to defeat the forces of colonialism”.

“Fanon’s attraction to violence,” Shatz writes, “reflected his background as a former soldier, and as a West Indian who had long believed that Martinique had failed to achieve genuine freedom because abolition had been granted by the French, rather than wrested from them as it had been in Haiti.” The Algerians thus retained their dignity by kicking France out. But what next? Shatz argues that Fanon believed an embrace of collective racial or ethnic identity could ultimately lead to the kind of universal humanism he celebrated in his first book. This is not what happened.

Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of an independent Algeria, declared soon after independence: “We are Arabs, Arabs, Arabs.” Amazigh (the language spoken by the Berbers) would not be recognised by the state for two decades. The observance of Ramadan became obligatory in 1963, and a law was passed that restricted Algerian nationality to Muslims. Most of Fanon’s friends left the country. As Shatz argues, “It is unlikely that Fanon, if he had been cured of his leukaemia, would have found a home there for long.” (Fanon was diagnosed with the cancer in the 1950s and died from pneumonia while receiving treatment in the US in 1961.)

Fanon stood up for equality and liberty. But why should the wretched of the Earth care for these abstract principles? Fanon grew to hate France because it failed to live up to the values it claimed to profess; why should he have assumed other nations would be capable of or willing to live up to them either? Algeria did not become a free and equal utopia, or even a liberal democracy, but a military dictatorship.

What explains this naivety? Shatz doesn’t spend enough time on this specific question, but reading his book makes it clear: it is better to think of Fanon in terms of sensibility rather than ideas. This is why he appealed to such a wide range of ideological camps, from the religious to the secular, the nationalist to the universalist. Fanonism is a mood, not an ideology.

Shatz argues that Fanon would have admired those in the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, not because he agreed with their politics but because of “their urgent, existential style of activism, and their emphasis on dignity and self-determination”. This description suggests Fanonism applies equally to Ukraine’s defence against Russian aggression, and indeed Shatz writes that “a prominent historian of eastern Europe has described Ukraine’s resistance as a Fanonian anti-colonial struggle”.

But Fanon will always be claimed more passionately by those speaking on behalf of the Global South. In 1950, a couple of years before Fanon moved to Algeria, less than 10 per cent of the world’s population lived in Africa. By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will reside in the continent.

The median age in Europe is 44; in Africa it is 19. Fanon is a young man’s thinker: witness his advocacy of rebellion, his distaste for orthodoxy, the fact he died at 36. The themes of self-determination and dignity he addressed in his work will be even more pressing for a rising generation of activists and thinkers who are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. They will do well to read Shatz’s satisfying biography; it offers a portrait of Fanon that is not hagiographic, but rather of a great man who was deeply flawed.

Fanon’s life and work can be explained by the conflicting poles of pride and shame. He was proud to fight for France in the Second World War, and ashamed at being treated as inferior afterwards. He then found admiration for a group of people in the form of Algerians that proudly defied France. But he didn’t live long enough to witness the folly of uncritically supporting developing-world revolution. Pride can be an invigorating force. But until one is exposed to shame, it can also be blinding.

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon
Adam Shatz
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £25

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[See also: Empire’s final reckoning]

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