Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth

Fanon - The Wretched of the EarthThe Wretched of the Earth (1961) had such a huge impact on me when I first read it. It was a pleasure to come back to it, and get more far more from it this time around after more years of experience, and also reading Black Skin, White Masks and much more about colonialism and struggle. I had forgotten quite what an anguished call for revolution and redemption it is, and can see why looking back I loved it so much. I was in need of those things myself, though my own need barely deserves to sit within the same paragraph as all that Fanon theorises.

For those not already favourable to Fanon’s works, I think the key point is this:

The masses battle with the same poverty, wrestle with the same age-old gestures, and delineate what we could call the geography of hunger with their shrunken bellies. A world of underdevelopment, a world of poverty and inhumanity. But also a world without doctors, without engineers, without administrators. Facing this world, the European nations wallow in the most ostentatious opulence. The European opulence is literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and it owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians. This we are determined never to forget. (53)

This is what is always forgotten. The second thing is this:

Antiracist racism and the determination to defend one’s skin, which is characteristic of the colonized’s response to colonial oppression, clearly represent sufficient reasons to join the struggle.  But one does not sustain a war, one does not endure massive repression or witness the disappearance of one’s entire family in order for hatred or racism to triumph. Racism, hatred, resentment, and “the legitimate desire for revenge” alone cannot nurture a war of liberation.

…hatred is not an agenda…. (89)

The violence described by Fanon as part of the struggle for liberation is not fueled by hatred, it is necessary to break the psychological controls over one’s own mind, to claim a different worldview, set of values and above all a different way of life and a different future than that being imposed through the deeper violence of colonialism. This is why he writes:

National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used…decolonization is always a violent event.

…proof of success lies in a social fabric that is has been changed inside out. This change is extraordinarily important because it is desired, clamored for, and demanded. The need for this changes exists in a raw, repressed, and reckless state in the lives and consciousness of colonized men and women. But the eventuality of such a change is also experienced as a terrifying future in the consciousness of another “species” of men and women: the colons, the colonists. (1)

Violent because it involves people standing up to reclaim what has been stolen violently from them and change everything, turn everything upside down — and that change, that reclaiming is fought tooth and tail with an immensity of fear by those who stole it.

On Violence:

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder…it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance. Decolonization is the encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation. (2)

The distance between the violence of capitalist and colonial regimes

In capitalist countries a multitude of sermonizers, counselors, and “confusion-mongers” intervene between the exploited and the authorities. In colonial regions, however, the proximity and frequent direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm. We have seen how the government’s agent uses a language of pure violence . The agent does not alleviate repression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subject.  (4)

— though arguably in the US at least, people of colour know more of the second than the first. The results:

So the colonized subject wastes no time lamenting and almost never searches for justice in the colonial context. (43)

During the struggle for liberation their is a singular loss of interest in these rituals. With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode on his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories. (20)

Violence become creative appropriation, a declaration that another way is possible after the old ways of enslavement and exploitation are smashed:

The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world, which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress, this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history in their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities. To blow the colonized world to smithereens is henceforth a clear image within the grasp and imagination of every colonized subject.


Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different. (6)

Resisting the violence of white supremacy and denigration of all others:

Now it so happens that when the colonized hear a speech on Western culture they draw their machetes or at least check to see if they are close to hand. The supremacy of white values is stated with such violence, the victorious confirmation of these values with then lifestyle and beliefs of the colonized is so impregnated with aggressiveness, that as a counter measure the colonized rightly makes a mockery of them whenever they are mentioned. (8)

Race and Marxism:

A topic very close to my heart

In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the precapitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be reexamined here…It is not the factories, the estates, or the bank account which primarily characterize the “ruling-class.” The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, “the others.” (5)

Race used justify conquest and then exploitation, not just to maintain, but to increase those inequalities in service to an oppression of many races by white Europeans in ways that stretch to an older past:

As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil. (6)

It’s “them or us” is not a paradox since colonialism, as we have seen, is precisely the organization of a Manichean world, of a compartmentalized world. (43)

how these new colonial and capitalist relations have shifted over time:

Capitalism, in its expansionist phase, regarded the colonies as a source of raw materials which once processed could be unloaded on the European market. After a phase of capital accumulation, capitalism has now modified its notion of profitability. The colonies have become a market. … A blind domination on the model of slavery is not economically profitable for the metropolis. The monopolistic fraction of the metropolitan bourgeoisie will not support a government whose policy is based solely on the power of arms. (27)

Another interesting aside on the nature of work and slavery:

They very quickly realized that work is not a simple notion, that slavery is the opposite of work, and that work presupposes freedom, responsibility, and consciousness. (133)


You do not disorganize a society, however primitive it may be, with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered. (3)

For us who are determined to break the back of colonialism, our historic mission is to authorize every revolt, every desperate act, and every attack aborted or drowned in blood. (146)

You must be ready to go all the way (and much as I value this work, much of this rhetoric does strike me as a very masculine position — there is little here on how to build and create though the need is acknowledged.). How much there is that can only be learned through struggle — and the necessity of struggle for learning it:

The colonized intellectual learned from his masters that the individual must assert himself. The  colonialist bourgeoisie hammered into the colonized mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity…Involvement in the organization of the struggle will already introduce him to a different vocabulary. “Brother,” “sister,” “comrade” are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie because in their thinking my brother is my wallet and my comrade, my scheming. In a kind of auto-da-fe, the colonized intellectual witnesses the destruction of all his idols: egoism, arrogant recrimination, and the idiotic, childish need to have the last word. this colonized intellectual, pulverized by colonialist culture, will also discover the strength of the village assemblies, the power of the people’s commissions…(11)

How much intellectuals have to learn…

For a colonized people, the most essential value, because it is the most meaningful, is first and foremost the land: the land which must provide bread and, naturally, dignity. (9)

The people, on the the other hand, take a global stance from the very start. “Bread and land: how do we go about getting bread and land?” And this stubborn, apparently limited, narrow-minded aspect of the people is finally the most rewarding and effective working model. (14)

He writes again:

One of the greatest services the Algerian revolution has rendered to Algerian intellectuals was to put them in touch with the masses, to allow them to see the extreme, unspeakable poverty of the people and at the same time witness the awakening of their intelligence and the development of their consciousness. (130)

The people themselves also have much to learn alongside intellectuals, for both

But political education means opening up the mind, awakening the mind, and introducing it to the world. It is as Cesaire said: “To invent the souls of men.” (138)

There is much in here that echoes Cesaire. Education and struggle are necessary because colonization works actively to deform the colonized so as to better control them, and these deformations deepen as the colonized do what they must to survive. A few examples of how insidious colonialism is and how it shapes everyday behaviours:

The question of truth must also be taken into consideration. For the people, only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth. No absolute truth, no discourse on the transparency of the soul can erode this position. In answer to the lie of the colonial situation, the colonized subject responds with a lie. (14)

The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits (15)

So one of the ways the colonized subject releases his muscular tension is through the very real collective self-destruction of these internecine feuds. Such behavior represents a death wish in the face of danger, a suicidal conduct which reinforces the colonist’s experience and domination and reassures him that such men are not rational. (17-18)

The treatment of the colonized is to brutalize, oppress into silence, and to push into the natural world so that for the colonizers they are not a troubling presence:

Under the French occupation the Germans remained human beings. In Algeria there is not simply domination but the decision, literally, to occupy nothing else but a territory. The Algerians, the women dressed in haiks, the palm groves, and the camels form a landscape, the natural backdrop for the French presence. (182)

Yet for the colonized?

We believe that in the cases presented here the triggering factor is principally the bloody, pitiless, atmosphere, the generalization of inhuman practices, of people’s lasting impression that they are witnessing a veritable apocalypse. (183)

For colonialism has not simply depersonalized the colonized. The very structure of society has been depersonalized on a collective level. (219)

Key for Fanon is violence as a tactic of self-liberation — it is part of a necessary process to become truly free of the colonial relationship — a physical struggle but more importantly a psychological one:

only the armed struggle can effectively exorcise these lies about man that subordinate and literally mutilate the more conscious minded among us (220)

The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence. (44)

At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence. Even if the armed struggle has been symbolic, and even if they have been demobilized by rapid decolonization, the people have time to realize that liberation was the achievement of each and every one and no special merit should go to the leader. Violence hoists people up to the level of the leader. (51)

For Fanon, the party (as opposed to the government) was the organising force of the struggle, he writes:

A country which really want to answer to history, which wants to develop its towns and the minds of its inhabitants, must possess a genuine party. The party is not an instrument in the hands of the government. Very much to the contrary, the party is an instrument in the hands of the people. It is the party which decides on the policy enacted by the government. (127)

The role of the intellectual:

In Algeria especially, Horne’s A Savage Peace, and to a lesser extent Feraoun’s journals and Djebar’s writings, show just how implicated French intellectuals were in the occupation of the country, particularly sociologists.

Experts and sociologists are a guiding force behind these colonialist maneuvers and conduct numerous studies on the subject of complexes…attempts are made to disarm him [the colonized subject] psychologically and, naturally, with a few coins. (90)

To counter this, another kind of intellectual is needed, another task required, though for Fanon this is always dialectical, never one way. Struggle and the will of the people fighting for liberation and the ideology of the movement are at all times educating and shaping each other:

The task of bringing the people to maturity is facilitated by rigorous organization as well as the ideological level of their leaders. The power of ideology is elaborated and strengthened as the struggle unfolds, taking into account the enemy’s maneuvers and the movement’s victories and setbacks…The insurrection proves to itself its rationality and demonstrates its maturity every time it uses a specific case to advance the consciousness of the people. (95)

Totally irresponsible yesterday, today they are bent on understanding everything and determining everything. Enlightened by violence, the people’s consciousness rebels against any pacification. (52)

These intellectuals work together with the party, to critique it and ensure it is remaining true to the struggle and to the people:

some of the intellectual elements who have made a thorough analysis of the colonial reality and the international situation, begin to criticize the ideological vacuum of the national party and its dearth of strategy and tactics. They never tire of asking the leaders the crucial questions “What is nationalism? What does it mean to you? What does the term signify? What is the point of independence? And first how do you intend to achieve it?” while at the same time demanding that methodological issued be vigorously addressed (77)

An interesting note on language and relationship to movement — perennially under discussion

Resorting to technical language means you are determined to treat the masses as uninitiated. Such language is a poor front for the lecturer’s intent to deceive the people and leave them on the sidelines. Language’s endeavor to confuse is a mask behind which looms an even greater undertaking to dispossess. The intention is to strip the people of their possessions as well as their sovereignty. You can explain anything to the people provided you really want them to understand. And if you think they can be dispensed with, that on the contrary they would be more of a nuisance to the smooth running of the many private and limited companies whose aim is to push them further into misery, than there is no more to be said. (131)

An awareness of the larger political context is also required, just as the anti-fascist fight and the US desire to become a leader of the free world after WWII played a key role in ensuring African American organising and struggle had levarage, so the context of this period must be taken into account:

Although the citadel is invincible against knives and bare hands, its invincibility crumbles when we take into account the context of the cold war. (38)

And for the future?

Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity. (145)

On Culture:

Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: “Who am I in reality?” (182)

Culture provides an answer.

National culture is no folklore where an abstract populism is convinced it has uncovered the popular truth. It is not some congealed mass of noble gestures, in other words less and less connected with the reality fo the people. National culture is the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong. National culture in the underdeveloped countries, therefore, must lie at the very heart of the liberation struggle… (168)

We believe the conscious, organized struggle undertaken by a colonized people in order to restore national sovereignty constitutes the greatest cultural manifestation that exists… After the struggle is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized.

This new humanity, for itself and for other, inevitably defines a new humanism. (178)


And I shall let Fanon’s conclusions speak for themselves, they are splendid. I have such trouble, myself, writing conclusions. This is why I should try harder.

Now, comrades, now is the time to decide to change sides. We must shake off the mantle of night which has enveloped us, and reach for the light. The new day which is dawning must find us determined, enlightened and resolute.

We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let s not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world. (235)

When I look for man in European lifestyles and technology I see a constant denial of man, an avalanche of murders.


Let us decide not to imitate Europe and let us tense our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us endeavour to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.

Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of American has become a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions. (236-237)

yes, the European spirit is built on strange foundations…A permanent dialogue with itself, an increasingly obnoxious narcissism inevitably paved the way for a virtual delirium where intellectual thought turns into agony since the reality fo man as a living, working, self-made being is replaced by words, an assemblage of words and the tensions generated by their meanings. (237)

Last sentence:

For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new man. (239)

For more on race, struggle, violence and empire…



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