Reviewed by Shane Hopkinson
The last two years has seen a wave of new books on the radical Black thinker and activist Frantz Fanon, more are in the pipeline, but these three, and a fourth by Christopher Lee reviewed on this site recently, represent a move away from the focus on postcolonial discourse analysis of recent years toward a more Marxist, humanist and existentialist reading.
Each of the three books follow Fanon’s life and work in chronological order, each with a different focus, but all are concerned with making Fanon relevant to contemporary social struggles. To do this requires a good understanding of the various contexts of Fanon’s work. If you do not know the details of Fanon’s biography, Leo Zeilig’s book is the place to start. Zeilig has a long history of work on class struggles in Africa and his detailed knowledge of these struggles helps to locate Fanon’s life and work as a product of the radical left to which he belonged. In particular, it is essential to get to grips with Fanon’s engagement with the pervading influence of the French Communist Party (PCF). It was the influence of this brand of Soviet Marxism that is threaded throughout Zeilig’s (and, to a lesser extent, Hudis’) account. Many colonised people, who fought with the colonial powers in anticipation of their freedom, shared Fanon’s experience of racism at home and during World War II. This grounded his politics. As Lewis Gordon points out to see Fanon’s text as autobiographical is a misreading, since a black means the black, the idea that Fanon’s work is about his individual experience is made impossible by the racial and colonial situation.
Leo Zeilig notes that Fanon’s first explicitly party-political activism was in support of Aimé Césaire’s successful campaign to be elected as a Communist deputy for Martinique in 1945. Fanon was critical of Césaire, and, by implication, the PCF’s position that Martinique remain a French department rather than being granted independence. Beginning here, and then in student politics in Lyon, Fanon was necessarily in the orbit of the PCF, whose role in the French Resistance had given it a real prestige. Fanon’s engagement was not a happy one as the PCF subscribed to an orthodox version of Marxism, based on mechanical stages, in which colonies either needed capitalist development to create a working class, or were to be left to wait for the proletarian revolution in the West, before they could be liberated. Fanon rejected this but as a man of the Left, this Marxism was central to his political development. This was true for a whole generation of French intellectuals like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty and his good friend, Manville, all of whom who joined the PCF. Hudis points out that Fanon was unusual in this, and in reading heretics like Trotsky, even more so.
Peter Hudis also points out that it was in Lyon that Fanon was exposed to a range of intellectual currents including the, then recently released, work of ‘early’ Marx, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts focus on alienation as a key frame for much of Fanon’s work, including his formal studies in medicine and psychiatry. While Fanon used all the clinical tools available to him to treat patients, he was always critical of the medical model and it was his understanding of mental illness as a loss of freedom resulting in alienation from communal life that would mark his life’s work in the clinical setting as well.
All three works address Fanon’s first work, Black Skin White Masks (BSWM), and its unique blend of Marxism (albeit ‘slightly stretched’ as Fanon put it), the phenomenology of the ‘lived experience’ of the Black, Sartrean existentialism and the Hegelian dynamics of mutual recognition (or, as Lewis Gordon astutely notes, their ‘failure’) to chart a path to liberation. Fanon is critical of the essentialism of the Négritude movement but takes issue with Sartre’s dismissal of it as a ‘minor term’ in the struggle. Sartre, Fanon argues, should have realised that the universal only arises out of the particular and Sartre’s dismissal shows the way racism deforms the thinking of even the best of Western thinkers. Hudis draws out the centrality of this ‘dialectical movement from the individual to the universal through the particular.’ (8). It is Lewis Gordon’s work though that does most to treat BSWM as an instance of creolising theory in its own right.
Lewis Gordon is an Afro-Jewish philosopher who reads Fanon from a Black existentialist perspective and seeks to avoid the reduction of Fanon’s thought to a series of reactions to the (mainly European) thinkers he had studied. Gordon does this by reading BSWN via an analogy with Dante’s Inferno with Fanon in the role of Virgil leading us through the ‘hell’ that is the lived experience of the Black body in a world that is the zone of ‘non-being’. This allows Gordon to draw out some of the nuances of Fanon’s unique style of thinking. Gordon draws out the irony that Fanon’s phenomenology allows a phobogenic object to speak and to explore the ‘failures’ that emerge as the Black hero attempts to live out these options in a human way. Thus, Blacks can master the coloniser’s language but are then seen as ‘dangerous’, recognition is always only on ‘white’ terms, and turning inward for sanctuary also fails ‘the black as a white construction’ (31). Having journeyed through the Inferno of racism, Fanon returns to the light, having shown that rationality is Western rationality, and that Western intellectuals had not taken the problem of racism seriously enough. Gordon demonstrates the value of a Fanonist reading of phenomenology and existentialism, and, like Hudis, makes clear that the end of racism implies a restructuring of the world. The books end with Fanon’s call to action but leaves us with many unanswered questions as to the form this would take.
At this point Fanon’s revolutionary activity took place around his internship at Saint Albans with François Tosquelles, an anti-Stalinist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and whose experiments with ‘institutional psychotherapy’ must have resonated with Fanon, building on his understanding of mental illness as alienation. Tosquelles was similarly interested in connecting clinical life with patients ‘lived experiences’ and experimented with more equal relations between doctors and ‘patients’, in which the latter developed their own self-activity. They both sought to challenge the power structure of asylums and humanise them.
It was career, not revolutionary politics, that took Fanon to Algeria but it would be his critique of colonial psychiatry that would draw him into the orbit of those opposed to the ‘Algerian school’ of psychiatry, which regarded Africans as ‘lobotomised Europeans’. He continued his attempt to humanise asylums, but in a few short years he find a concrete path to liberation, developing the vague calls outlined in BSWM, using the hospital as a front for medical aid to Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) fighters, teaching them to resist torture, and treating those tortured by the French (as well as those they tortured). When the FLN launched its armed struggle, Fanon did not return to France like most doctors, but joined the war (his second in a decade) that defined the rest of his life.
Again this revolutionary path was opposed by the PCF, who did not support the struggle and whose actions weakened the role the working class in Algeria (and in France) might have played. As Zeilig’s account shows, the PCF were slow to act in solidarity. This is his book’s great strength, as he details how the Algerian Communist Party at times adapted to the PCF line, but also had a history of independent action which needs to be remembered. Both Hudis and Zeilig argue that Fanon remained overly sceptical of the French left, which was understandable given the widespread tendency to ignore the issue of racism, or to seek to defer its priority to the ‘real’ fight, which Fanon denounced as a kind of neo-colonialism. Often this was extended to a critique of the entire French working class – but was at other times more balanced and recognised or at least hoped that their solidarity would eventually emerge.
Leo Zeilig walks us through the details of the struggle (perhaps a little too much detail at times). He notes the influence of Islamism, and the often fratricidal debates in the Algerian nationalist movement, in face of ferocious French repression. This repression eventually caused Fanon to leave for Tunis, and a de-facto ambassador’s role with the Provisional Government. Fanon worked as a psychiatrist, innovating the idea of ‘day’ hospitals, but increasingly took on the role as a Pan-African militant, doing FLN reconnaissance and diplomatic work. In a matter of weeks, he pulled together his second book, Towards a Dying Colonialism. Ostensibly a propaganda piece, it is a sociogenic portrait of the real movement of the Algerian people’s struggle around radio, veil, medicine, and the family. This work amounts to his first answer to the question posed in BSWM of what the struggle for mutual recognition might look like. Here, he seeks to demonstrate how a new humanism could be collectively created by colonial subjects forging new lives for themselves. Gordon’s existentialist reading of all this as ‘revolutionary therapy’ seems less convincing here.
As the independence struggle reached its climax in the early Sixties, Fanon found himself again with a wealth of experience, a body of questions, and a diagnosis of leukaemia that would eventually take his life. In the final 10 months he produced one of the great political documents of our time, Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). He took its title from the socialist anthem L’Internationale but, as Gordon points out, there are also resonances with the Black radical tradition: with the work Sales negres [Dirty niggers], by Haitian poet and founder of Haitian Communist Party, Jacques Romain, and Franklin Frazier’s The Black Bourgeoisie as lumpen bourgeoisie.
Peter Hudis makes clear that as for Marx, the aim of the proletarian revolution was to end the existence of social classes, so for Fanon, the aim of national liberation was not to find a new home for Blackness (a la Negritude), but to abolish the conditions requiring its existence ‘The death of race is indeed the goal of national liberation struggle’ (95). This goal cannot be achieved by ignoring the particularity of racial identity or national demands, but by superceding them. Again, Gordons psycho-existentialist reading of all this as ‘Counselling the Damned’, is less strong. All three authors are, like Fanon, critical of orthodox Marxism, and recognise the need to create a new start (or as Gordon notes, in French, literally to ‘grow new skin’ p. 128) that does not take racism as a kind of ‘minor term’. The struggle for universal human emancipation can only develop in concrete, particular struggles, and not out of abstract identities.
It is Fanon’s defence of armed struggle, reduced to the issue of ‘violence’, that has been the focus of discussion of this last text, but it entered debates on the Left about the role of various classes in liberation struggles and the need for liberation to be seized by the masses. It amounts to a scathing critique of the emergent colonial bourgeoisie that has proved prophetic, argues for reparations as well as the importance of the role of culture in struggle. It concludes with Fanon’s psychiatric case notes, outlining the terrible human cost of the struggle. All these authors seek to make Fanon our contemporary. This means understanding his context as a man of the Left, and recognising, as Hudis sums up, that a movement is Fanonian insofar as it recognises ‘his persistent effort to bring to the surface the quest for a new humanity in the social struggles of his time’ (3), as we need to do for ours.
19 December 2016