Reviewed by Daniel Badenhorst
Violence, Slavery and Freedom between Hegel and Fanon is one of the newest additions to the ever-expanding secondary literature on Fanon’s Hegelschriften. Bringing together the works of six different authors, in addition to an interpretative introduction by Robert Bernasconi, this book provides the reader with a kaleidoscopic view of the Fanon-Hegel relation. With each chapter their relation appears in a new hue and previously unnoticed elements come to the fore. As a result, whether it be in abandoning old interpretive assumptions (as in Philippe Van Haute’s essay) or in taking paths less well trodden (as in Beata Stawarska or Ulrike Kistner’s contributions) The volume serves to enlighten and expand our way of thinking. For this, the authors and editors deserve credit and for this alone, anyone interested in Fanon’s Hegelschriften is encouraged to do themselves the favour of availing themselves of this fine collection.
Its kaleidoscopic nature is, however, also a source of a major problem. The book sells itself as a ‘close reading of Hegel’s text’, of responses to it and how they are taken up in the work of Fanon. The reader would then expect that Hegel and Fanon are dealt with on the questions of violence, slavery and freedom. Instead, we have a book that deals mostly with Fanon, sometimes with his French Hegel and often with other figures who have appropriated or misappropriated bits of Fanon or Hegel.
Very well, the book is on Fanon’s Hegelschriften. Here a second problem emerges: the volume does not situate itself in the vast literature on the subject. While the readings in the book are exciting and based on a crucial return to the original language sources, it suffers from isolating itself from the rich interpretative context into which it intervenes. This has two detrimental effects. Firstly, it precludes the volume as a self-contained overview of the Fanon-Hegel question. Instead, it appears to the unassuming reader as merely another set of more-or-less plausible interpretations. Secondly, the book is unable to properly demonstrate the significance of the interpretations presented. The reader is either left to guess at the unstated targets and potential interlocutors, or, in the wort-case scenario, underestimate the significance of the contributions.
Kistner and Van Haute’s ‘Preface’ opens by distancing the approach from ‘decolonial’ works on Hegel (vii). Noting that Hegel’s legacy is twofold – Hegel thinks recognition, freedom and self-consciousness and produces a Eurocentric philosophy of world history – they seek, unlike those who claim Hegel’s system is rotten to the core, to prise these elements apart. Leaving Hegel’s history aside, the volume seeks to rectify the fact that little ‘critical’ attention has been given to the ‘master-slave dialectic’ (viii). This claim to be ‘critical’ is central to the text as the book is characterised by a healthy distrust for ‘interpretative-givens’. That these ‘interpretative-givens’ remain unnamed is yet another to lament the volume’s lack of self-contextualisation.
Bernasconi’s ‘Introduction’ provides a synoptic overview of the volume with a helpful and contextualising summary of Fanon’s ‘the Negro and Hegel’. It is particularly valuable in that it provides some critical remarks on some of the chapters and highlights some elements of Fanon’s account the volume misses. One such element, Bernasconi argues, is the influence of Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure on Fanon’s Hegelschriften. Unfortunately, he provides no citations nor any real evidence for this claim. The rest of the introduction is uncontentious, although Bernasconi does stage an important critique of two authors. He first questions Stawarska’s reading of Fanon as a ‘life affirming philosophy’. Against this, Bernasconi writes, ‘Hegel and Fanon agree that the struggle, the fight, is not for life, for self-preservation, but for something higher’ (xix). Secondly, Bernasconi rejects Ato Sekyi-Otu’s reading for suppressing the dialectical element of Fanon’s thinking (xxii).
Despite this suppression of dialectics and general hostility to Hegel, Sekyi-Otu’s chapter is not focused on the old Prussian. The productive part of the essay is his comparison of Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre’s account colonial-violence. Sartre, Sekyi-Otu writes, is a thinker of a Hobbesian universe. Domination, alienation and reification are for Sartre, as Sekyi-Otu recounts, a normal state of affairs. But if domination is normal, from what standpoint can Sartre criticise colonialism as a structure of domination (20)? The chapter provides two answers to this question. On the one hand, Sartre is accused of simply reducing colonial-history to History, treating it as an instantiation of a greater ‘dialectic’ (18), ‘a variation on an ontological theme’ (19). Yet, right at the end of the chapter, Sekyi-Otu points to a moment in Sartre’s Black Orpheus in which the singular violence of colonialism is explored. Unlike most existence, characterised by reciprocal objectification, colonialism is a situation in which one group is totally objectified by an all-powerful subject. That is, Sartre, in this moment, thinks the lack of reciprocity in colonialism as the source of its peculiar and singular violence. Thus, in spite of his exaggerated polemic against Hegel, Sekyi-Otu’s reading remains an interesting and important interpretation of a claim that Fanon makes in ‘the Negro and Hegel’ that the absence of reciprocity differentiates the colonial situation from Hegel’s lord-bondsman dialectic.
In the second chapter, Van Haute shows – definitively – that Fanon’s Hegelschriften is made through ‘Kojève’s Lens’ (25). This is not a novel claim. The advance that Van Haute makes is to go some ways in proving this via both an extensive exegesis of Hegel’s lord-bondsman and Kojève’s master-slave dialectic (Kojeve’s speaking of slaves not bondsmen is another important point raised in the essay). In this respect Van Haute’s essay is a corrective to two broad interpretative traditions. Against those who think that Fanon provides a devastating critique of Hegel’s – hence that Fanon is anti-Hegelian – Van Haute shows that Fanon’s critique cannot be adequately brought to bear on Hegel’s Phenomenology. Against those who think that Fanon’s critique of colonialism is based on a comprehensive understanding of Hegel’s text – hence Fanon is a Hegelian par excellence – Van Haute shows that Fanon’s dependence on Kojève’s Introduction puts his position at a substantial distance from Hegel’s.
While Van Haute’s is certainly one of the clearest and most historically grounded readings of Fanon’s Hegelschriften to date, it still of course has its problems. One of these is its failure to mention Sartre, Amie Césaire, Simone de Beauvoir or Marx. In fact, Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Mao do not figure in the entire book. This is troubling given the fact that Van Haute explains Fanon’s ‘privileging’ of violence via his reliance on Kojève (26). This leads him to the hyperbolic conclusion that it is only – or at least largely – because Fanon conceptualises colonialism via Kojève’s master-servant dialectic that ‘a limited number of propositions [concerning violence] can be made to understand the colonial situation and its overcoming’ (47). Such a proposition not only absolutely overstates Kojève’s influence but also trivialises Fanon’s detailed thinking on the subject.
Kistner’s ‘Reading Hegel’s Gestalten – Beyond Coloniality’ works to both distance the Phenomenology from a discussion of historical slavery and point to a hitherto under-researched dialogue with-and-via Hegel that is at work in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. This dialogue is one between Fanon and Mannoni and their own respective readings of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Kistner’s article is supposedly to have shown that ‘Fanon’s contestatory reading of the French Hegel, in turn, confronts Mannoni’s reading of Hegel reading Diderot, in a debate through which the terms of the problem can be stated differently – as reaching beyond coloniality’ (64-5). How this conclusion is to be understood is not clear. While ‘beyond coloniality’ is both in the title and last word of the piece, a discussion of coloniality is absent from Kistner’s chapter. As a result, despite distancing Hegel’s Phenomenology from real world slavery and accounting for Fanon and Mannoni’s differing engagements with Hegel (the essay’s real contribution), Kistner’s chapter remains a deeply confusing read. The reader is left wondering exactly what the stakes were and how coloniality has been transcended.
Josias Tembo’s chapter stages a critique of Achille Mbembe’s uptake of Hegel. Tembo begins by asking whether there is a relation between the shapes of self-consciousness in the lord-bondsman dialectic (Phenomenology) and the sub-human figures populating Hegel’s sub-Saharan Africa (Lectures on World History) (71). This question is then linked to Mbembe’s use of the lord-bondsman dialectic to analyse African slavery. Tembo asks: if the lord-bondsman dialectic does not relate to or explain African slavery, then how can it be used, by a figure such as Mbembe, to do just that? Tembo’s answer to this question is that any such use rests on a conflation which ‘produces colonial subjects without historical agency’ (72). Consequently, someone like Mbembe ‘unintentionally appropriates the discourse of victimhood in modelling the dehumanising violence of slavery and colonisation on the master-slave dialectic’ (88). Despite these harsh words Mbembe is, for Tembo, simply an example of why this dialectic should not be used. It ‘does not tell us anything substantial about the actual complex historical processes of colonisation and slavery, or about their consequences’ (90). Such a claim is strange in a book on Fanon’s Hegelschriften. Given Fanon’s use of the master-servant dialectic to unpack racial-colonialism and revolutionary decolonisation, how does this square with Tembo’s claims that using this dialectic tells us nothing about either of these historical processes. Is Fanon to be abandoned?
Beata Stawarska’s chapter discusses violence between Beauvoir and Fanon. It is a welcome addition to a volume which otherwise ignores Beauvoir’s influence. Stawarska seeks to i) ‘lend moral legitimacy to Fanon’s encomium to retributive violence within anticolonial resistance’ (93) via Beauvoir’s account of justified violence, and ii) produce a new reading of violence as ‘bodily vitality’ in Fanon. The second argument is ultimately too short and in need of further justification as Bernasconi subtly suggests (xix). The argument about Beauvoir is the centrepiece of the chapter. Stawarska compellingly reconstructs Beauvoir’s account of absolute evil – treating the human being as an object, denying a human being their ‘existence as men’ (102) – as calling for vengeance. This vengeance is profoundly positive as it not only seeks to re-establish reciprocity – human relations – but is the moment in which victims may reassert and reclaim humanity beyond victimhood (103). This account of Beauvoir is compelling. Yet there is something troubling in the project of seeking ‘moral legitimacy’ for Fanon’s account externally, especially in a discussion in which the history of national liberation struggles and communist revolutions – which inspired and informed Fanon’s thinking on violence – are absent. Not only does Stawarska abandon Fanon’s internal resources for an external standard of goodness, but she claims that Fanon’s analysis of violence only has ‘the force of a moral imperative when situated in the framework provided by Beauvoir’ (108). It is one thing to work comparatively, another entirely to claim that Fanon’s analysis only gains moral force when it leans on Beauvoir’s project. Fanon does not need us to find justification for his claims about violence external to his texts.
Finally, Reingard Nethersole provides a detailed reading of Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha’s prefaces to Wretched of the Earth for the purpose of unearthing the way in which their differing historical situations and readings of Hegel’s lord-bondsman dialectic determines their reception of Fanon’s text (118). This is particularly well executed in relation to Sartre’s preface. In these sections Sartre and Fanon’s texts are shown to complement each other, producing a single-voiced condemnation of colonialism. This task is, of course, made easier for Nethersole by the fact that the two thinkers not only had a mutual influence on one another, but that they shared some fundamental theoretical presuppositions. Her account of Bhabha and our contemporary relation to Fanon are much sparser and appear – relative to the brilliant sections on Sartre – as an afterthought. Clearly Nethersole is less sympathetic to Bhabha, and for good reason. Not only does Bhabha fail to see the Hegel behind Fanon’s words (131), but he also dismisses Fanon’s humanism (Bhabha 2008: xxxii; on Bhabha, see Robinson 1993).
With all this said, Violence, Slavery and Freedom between Hegel and Fanon is an intriguing addition to the secondary literature and contains insights that the Fanon scholar would be remiss to miss. Let the critical remarks above merely stand as an indication to the prospective reader of some of the problems in an otherwise interesting set of essays.
4 October 2021
- 2008 ‘Foreword to the 1986 Edition’ Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon, trans. C.L. Markmann (London: Pluto Press): xxi-xxxvii.
- 2004 The Wretched of the Earth trans. R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press).
- 2008 Black Skin, White Masks trans. C.L. Markmann, (London: Pluto Press).
- 1993 The appropriation of Frantz Fanon Race & Class 35(1):79–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/030639689303500108.