Since Frantz Fanon’s death in 1961 at the age of thirty-six, his reputation has passed through several stages. Fanon was a psychiatrist from Martinique who detested the French colonial system that he was born into and which educated him. During the Algerian War of Independence, he took the Algerian side against the French, in the process renaming himself Ibrahim Fanon and disowning his status as a French colonial subject – a black man in a white man’s world. He became properly famous in the 1960s – first in France and then internationally – for his book The Wretched of the Earth, an analysis of the colonial experience and the challenges and difficulties of decolonisation. It was this book that made Fanon an influence on and hero to successive generations of radicals and revolutionaries, from Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement to the Palestinians and, in the present day, the angry immigrant populations of the French banlieues. In the English-speaking world, he is perhaps best known as a prophet of what is referred to in the universities as postcolonial studies, particularly the variant that, in its most politicised and militant form, argues that Western colonialism was a long series of crimes against humanity and, still unpunished, is as such unfinished business.
The Wretched of the Earth was first published in French, the language that Fanon spoke as his native tongue and which gave him his true literary voice. It arrived with an introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, who, perhaps feeling guilty because of his own lack of action during the Second World War, seemed to exult in the anti-colonial violence that Fanon apparently espoused. Sartre famously wrote: ‘Killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed, leaving one man dead and the other man free.’ Anyone who has read Fanon with any degree of attention will understand straightaway, however, that this is not actually what Fanon said. According to Fanon, colonialism was a form of psychic violence that destroyed the identity of the colonised. As a response, he advocated total rejection of European civilisation, by which he meant the creation of a new culture, defined by force of arms if necessary. As a psychiatrist who treated patients from both sides in the Algerian conflict, he was aware, however, that such means of resistance are arguably just as destructive as the colonial experience – a classic double blind in the language of psychiatry. Fanon’s essentially humanist outlook was not quite the same thing, as Sartre had it, as making propaganda for murderers.
The version of Fanon’s thought that emerges from reading the nearly eight hundred pages of this collection of his writings, many of which have not previously been published, is a nuanced one. His writings are arranged into three parts, starting with his early theatrical works – some of which were until now thought to be lost forever. These are followed by his psychiatric writings and then his political ones, which are of course mainly centred on the war in Algeria. The translation by Steven Corcoran is exemplary, clear and clean, and probably as near as you can get in English to the passion and intelligence of Fanon’s writing. Jean Khalfa and Robert J C Young provide informed, insightful and original commentaries along the way.
It is interesting to learn, for example, that the young Fanon fancied himself as a playwright before he became a doctor. His early models for thinking included Nietzsche, Hegel and Sartre as well as the likes of Aimé Césaire, the great poet and politician who, like Fanon, was a son of Martinique. Césaire devised the perspective known as négritude, a way of thinking that saw anti-colonialism only as a step towards pan-African racial unity. Fanon did not quite agree with Césaire about all of this, but, as these writings reveal, they did both share a literary interest in surrealism. Perhaps the most important revelation here is how much Fanon’s later psychiatric and political writings owe to his early literary obsessions. Fanon sees that colonialism is the deepest and most dangerous form of surreal experience for his patients.
The psychiatric writings, in contrast, present something of a stumbling block: they are clearly of great value from a historical point of view, but they also present the greatest challenge in this collection to the lay reader. They are outlined by Khalfa in a brave introductory chapter that draws in Lacan, Foucault and Merleau-Ponty among others. This is reasonable enough, as there has always been in much French medical writing a close link between psychiatry, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Fanon was also interested in neurology, which at the time when he was writing was pretty much in its infancy as a medical discipline in France and elsewhere. For all that Khalfa claims that Fanon was an innovator in his field – which may well be true – it’s also not hard to guess that much of what he discovered would have been left behind by those who came after him. I leave scholars better qualified than I am to argue the point.
You don’t have to be an expert, however, to see that Fanon’s political writings still have compelling power and prescience in the 21st century. Most of those reproduced here are articles Fanon wrote for the French edition of El Moudjahid, the official newspaper of the Algerian revolutionaries, published in Tunis between 1957 and 1960. These texts would effectively form the main theses of The Wretched of the Earth; it is fascinating to read them here in their most direct and visceral form, deliberately intended to provoke insurrection and revolution. This is history happening in real time and at ground level.
This is an important book. The editors have performed a great service to present and future generations of ‘Fanonistes’ by assembling these texts with forensic care. Perhaps most importantly, they show that Fanon in all his often tortured complexity is actually at a very long remove from his current oversimplified status as the poster boy for postcolonial studies, the Che Guevara of the lecture theatre.