Who’s Afraid of Frantz Fanon?

REVIEWS, 1 Apr 2024

Sam Klug | Boston Review - TRANSCEND Media Service

Frantz Fanon, with FLN soldiers (left) and a page from The Wretched of the Earth (right) in the background. Photos: Alamy

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon; by Adam Shatz; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Long decried by liberals and conservatives alike, the Martinican psychiatrist remains one of the most piercing critics of colonialism.

27 Mar 2024 – In the months since October 7, a great deal of US commentary has brandished the words of Martinican psychiatrist and anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon as evidence of the supposed moral degradation of the left. Conservative commentator Eli Lake, writing in Bari Weiss’s The Free Press, provides a representative example. “All this Fanonism, so popular in academia today, is being used to justify exterminationist rhetoric against the only Jewish state and against Jews anywhere,” Lake contends. Of the two examples he cites, one is a statement by CUNY’s Jewish Law Students Association; both refer only to Fanon’s claim that colonial oppression made it “impossible to breathe.”

More than almost any other twentieth-century intellectual, Fanon has been remembered through his aphorisms.

Likewise, psychologist Jonathan Haidt declares that the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses can be explained by the popularity of “straight oppressor/victim terminology, from post-colonialist thinker Frantz Fanon.” Similar arguments—whether they reference Fanon or allude more generally to applications of frameworks of colonialism, settler colonialism, or decolonization to Israel-Palestine—increasingly pervade mainstream reactions to the growing movement for Palestinian solidarity in the United States.

These caricatures reflect a long tradition of Fanon fearmongering among American conservatives and liberals alike. For decades, Fanon has been invoked as a bogeyman in debates about Israel-Palestine, Black activism in the United States, and even the politics of higher education. In 2014, writing in the aftermath of an Israeli bombing campaign that killed over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the late New Left sociologist and activist Todd Gitlin denounced Fanon as an advocate of a “brand of brutal Manichaeism.” In 1967, after a summer punctuated by Black uprisings in Newark and Detroit, Aristide and Vera Zolberg lamented the “Americanization of Frantz Fanon” by his interpreters and admirers in the Black Power movement. And in a 1990 address at Harvard, Allan Bloom—railing against the “radicalism” taking over humanities departments—dismissed Fanon as “an ephemeral writer once promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre because of his murderous hatred of Europeans and his espousal of terrorism.”

Fanon’s bogeyman status reveals little about his thought, but it discloses a real tendency in his reception. More than almost any other twentieth-century thinker, Fanon has been remembered and interpreted through his aphorisms, which are by turn lyrical, seductive, and arresting. “A Black is not a man,” but resides in a “zone of nonbeing.” “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” Or, most famously: “Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”

But single expressions are merely “pieces of a man,” as Adam Shatz, quoting Gil Scott-Heron, observes in The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. In this timely and engaging new book—the first full-length biography in English since David Macey’s in 2000—Shatz restores a sense of wholeness to Fanon’s life and work. The unifying pursuit of Fanon’s life, Shatz argues, was the “disalienation” of those suffering from racial and colonial oppression—a project at once individual and social, clinical as well as political. For Fanon, Shatz concludes, this was the end goal of psychiatry as a practice of freedom.

At a moment when Fanon is once again being deeply distorted, Shatz restores a sense of wholeness to Fanon’s life and work.

At a moment when Fanon is once again being deeply misread and distorted, The Rebel’s Clinic helps us return to all of Fanon—the fullness of his thought and practice beyond the familiar aphorisms. On four questions, in particular, Fanon speaks most forcefully today, and not always in ways we might expect: the place of violence in struggles for liberation; the phenomenology of Blackness and the experience of racialization; the relation between cultural tradition and political struggle; and the nature of the Western-led global order.

Fanon was born in 1925 in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, one of France’s vieilles colonies in the Caribbean. He died young, like so many Black radicals of the twentieth century—in 1961, at the age of only thirty-six, of leukemia. He first came to France as a soldier, enlisting with the Free French Forces during World War II. After the war, he studied medicine and psychiatry, immersing himself in the heterodox methods of “institutional therapy” associated with the radical psychiatrist François Tosquelles at the Saint-Alban asylum. He first came to Algeria as a doctor, to pursue and extend these methods, in 1953—where he would ultimately become better known as a rebel than a clinician.

Shatz places special emphasis throughout on Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist, including his clinical work at hospitals in France, Algeria, and Tunisia. The depth and sophistication of the book’s treatment of this material marks the most significant difference from Macey’s study, which instead reveals much more about Fanon’s upbringing and early life in Martinique. Indeed, it is through this psychiatric lens that Shatz takes on the two questions that have most preoccupied interpreters of Fanon: his views on violent resistance to oppression, and his understanding of race.

Long before he arrived in Algeria, Fanon knew violence firsthand—both the everyday violence of a colonial order and the violence of modern war. The Algerian revolution broke out in 1954, a year after he was hired to direct the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital. Fanon and his staff immediately put their clinic in the service of the revolution, to members of the National Liberation Front (FLN). This daring choice endeared Fanon to the group’s regional leadership—especially military strategist Abane Ramdane, who would guide Fanon’s path into the FLN’s inner circle. Fanon never designed FLN policy or strategy himself; initially he was a spokesman, writing articles for the FLN’s newspaper El Moudjahid, and later he would become a diplomat, representing the FLN through its diplomatic arm, the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA), in the newly independent nations of Africa.

Fanon knew violence firsthand—both the everyday violence of a colonial order and the violence of modern war.

It was in this context that Fanon developed his ideas about violence, which come through most vividly in the stories he told about the revolution at it was unfolding rather than from his actions within it. These accounts—captured in the books A Dying Colonialism (1959), Toward the African Revolution (1964), and, most of all, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)—would become among the most widely read texts on decolonization ever written. “At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force,” Fanon famously writes in the first chapter of Wretched, “On Violence”—or at least, that is how most translations have rendered it. The French is “la violence désintoxique.” Shatz argues that “disintoxicating” is a more appropriate translation, suggesting that anticolonial violence is not necessarily righteous or redemptive but a psychiatric phenomenon of sorts—one that relieves the supposed “inferiority complex” imposed by the colonizer upon the colonized.

Beyond this alternative translation, though, Shatz offers a familiar reading of “On Violence” as a straightforward defense of armed struggle against colonial rule. More compelling is his discussion of Fanon’s nuanced understanding of the place of violence in liberation struggles that emerges from a reading of the rest of Wretched.

On the one hand, in his role as FLN spokesperson, Fanon did, on occasion, justify acts of violence against civilians, including Algerians. Shatz demonstrates that Fanon worked to conceal a grisly massacre of three hundred Algerian civilians who supported a rival group to the FLN, and, closer to home, helped cover up the murder of his friend Ramdane by rivals within the FLN’s leadership. Shatz sees Fanon’s role in these acts as a sort of ethical compromise—an acceptance of the demands of revolutionary discipline, but one that came with heavy psychological costs. Ramdane’s murder, Shatz argues, haunted Fanon for the rest of his life; shortly before Fanon’s own death, he confessed to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that he felt responsible for it.

On the other hand, Fanon argued that vengeance against the European settler population in Algeria could not form the basis of a viable political strategy. “Racism, hatred, resentment, and ‘the legitimate desire for revenge’ alone cannot nurture a war of liberation,” he concludes. Animus toward the settler population or the colonial power may well be an inevitable factor in  anticolonial revolt, but it was far from sufficient. “Political education of the masses,” Fanon insisted, is required to turn the “spontaneity” of the initial phase of revolt into a disalienating politics, one that creates a new universalism out of the wreckage of the old.

This view of violence is most evident in the final chapter of Wretched, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” where Fanon offers case histories of both Algerian and French patients he treated at the Blida-Joinville clinic and at the Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis. Shatz takes these stories to represent the keystone of Fanon’s pursuit of disalienation.

In one case, Fanon recounts the story of a European policeman who had tortured Algerian fighters, and who, he claimed, could “hear [their] screams even at home.” Though Fanon agreed to treat him privately, in order to keep him separate from the FLN fighters in his care at the hospital, one day this patient took a walk on the hospital grounds, where he spotted one of his former victims. Fanon “found him leaning against a tree, covered in sweat and having a panic attack” and soon noticed that his other patient, the policeman’s victim, had gone missing. “We eventually discovered him hiding in a bathroom where he was trying to commit suicide,” Fanon wrote. The Algerian had recognized the policeman and thought he had come to the hospital to arrest him.

In another case, an African freedom fighter from another independence struggle, who had placed a bomb in a café that killed ten people, was haunted by insomnia and anxiety attacks, which intensified each year on the anniversary of the bombing. This militant “never for a moment had thought of recanting,” Fanon writes. He understood his symptoms as “the price he had had to pay in his person for national independence.”

Fanon’s thinking about anticolonial violence cannot be understood apart from his analysis of colonial violence, which Shatz largely overlooks.

These case histories form a sobering counterpoint to Wretched’s first chapter. Fanon clearly understood the psychic wounds of colonial warfare, including the moral injury that doing violence inflicted on both anticolonial militants and French soldiers. Shatz reads Fanon as arguing that “the disintoxicating effects of violence are ephemeral at best.” If the work of decolonization could require violence, the work of disalienation required reckoning with—working through—the costs that violence incurred.

At the same time, Fanon’s thinking about anticolonial violence cannot be understood apart from his sophisticated analysis of the nature of colonial violence, which Shatz largely overlooks in The Rebel’s Clinic. He is far from alone in this elision, which often undergirds the portrait of Fanon as a prophet of violence.

Colonial violence is depicted in Fanon’s writings, especially Wretched, in two ways. First and most obvious is the brutal French war of counterinsurgency, which inflicted widespread torture and mutilation and killed hundreds of thousands of Algerians. Fanon sees the war as both a logical outcome of the colonial regime and a pathological expression of racist, colonial fears of the inherently violent “native.” “Colonized society is not simply described as a society without values,” he writes in Wretched.

The colonist is not content with stating that the colonized world has lost its values or worse never possessed any. The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say it, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil. A corrosive element, destroying everything within his reach, a corrupting element, distorting everything which involves aesthetics or morals, an agent of malevolent powers, an unconscious and incurable instrument of blind forces.

Thus the brutal, ferocious violence unleashed upon the “natives” who resist.

But beyond the violence of war, there was also the less discrete, more quotidian violence of colonial rule itself, which Fanon had experienced in different forms in Martinique and Algeria—the simultaneously psychic and somatic violence of racialized regimes of interpersonal harm and economic inequality that colonial society imposed. The colonial world is a “Manichaean world,” Fanon explains—a “world cut in two.” It is “a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized’s sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light.” In it, “you are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything.” The sinews of the colonial order, moreover, linked this everyday violence to the spectacular violence of colonial warfare, and the denial of humanity that accompanied it: “Sometimes this Manichaeanism reaches its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the colonized subject,” Fanon explains. “In plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal.”

Fanon’s dictum that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” must be understood in this context. This most cherry-picked line of Fanon’s writings represents not so much a strategic injunction, and still less a blanket justification for killing, as an acknowledgment of the scale of transformation—from the personal to the structural—that decolonization entailed. As philosopher Lewis R. Gordon observes in What Fanon Said (2015), Fanon’s work emerged from the recognition that “colonialism’s victory would be continued violence; the colonized’s victory would be, to the colonial forces, violence incarnate.”

“The colonized’s sector is a famished sector,” Fanon wrote. In it, “you are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything.”

A onetime playwright, Fanon was sensitive to the dramaturgy of struggle. In his landmark Conscripts of Modernity (2004), anthropologist David Scott counterposes the “romance” of decolonization long associated with the work of Fanon and other anticolonial writers to the “tragedy” evident in the second edition of C. L. R. James’s study of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1963). As Scott reads them, James’s additions to the original 1938 text stressed the “irreconcilable dissonance between Toussaint’s expectations for freedom and the conditions in which he sought to realize them, between the utopia of his desire and the finitude of his concrete circumstances.” The same could be said of Fanon. To sever ties with France, to reconstitute Algerian society, to forge out of the ruins of European humanism a “new man”—all represented wrenching, violent transformations that imposed significant costs on the relationships, identities, and forms of life of those involved in the struggle, not least Fanon himself.

Reading Fanon’s work in this way leaves open many of the questions of strategy that “On Violence” is often presumed to answer. Fanon’s work serves as a bracing corrective to the contemporary liberal imagination, which both privileges existing political orders and presents an extremely circumscribed model of nonviolent civil disobedience as the only morally acceptable or strategically viable form of political resistance. Rather than resolving the question of means and ends in antiracist and anticolonial struggles, a Fanonian recognition of the violence inherent in the overturning of a racial-colonial world order clears the ground for a more productive conversation about them.

Beyond debates about anticolonial violence, Fanon is most invoked today in discussions about racialization and the “lived experience of Blackness.” Here, too, Shatz stresses the psychiatric dimensions of Fanon’s thought—and presents a partial psychohistory of his subject.

Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, was published in 1952. (The text was initially rejected as Fanon’s doctoral thesis by his adviser on the faculty of medicine in Lyon.) The young Fanon, then twenty-six, plotted the psychic coordinates of a society defined by racism, especially its fears and fantasies of Black sexuality. With Black Skin, White Masks, Shatz argues, Fanon found his voice not only as a philosopher of the “lived experience of Blackness” but as a diagnostician of what historians Barbara and Karen Fields call “racecraft”—the ideologies, myths, and neuroses that “form us as racialized individuals.”

Shatz also sees the book as a critical moment in Fanon’s own Oedipal drama, reckoning as it does with not one but two of Fanon’s intellectual father figures: the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire and the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Though Fanon was deeply influenced by Sartre’s analysis of racial formation in Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), he fulminated against Sartre’s characterization of Négritude—the literary movement pioneered by Césaire and other Afro-Caribbean writers—as “the weak stage of a dialectical progression” that had to be superseded in order to achieve “the realization of the human society without race.” To Fanon, this verdict smacked of white paternalism and dismissiveness, and it came too close to the empty assertions of common humanity that pervaded French republicanism—only made more unbearable by the everyday racist humiliations Fanon experienced on the streets of Lyon.

Fanon may have had a “burning wish to achieve freedom from history,” as Shatz writes, but he was no ethical voluntarist.

At the same time, Fanon had his own criticisms of Négritude. He deeply admired Césaire’s idea of “Blackness as invention,” but he criticized the movement’s orientation to history. “In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color,” he insisted. Instead, Shatz argues, Fanon understood disalienation as aiming at freedom from the past—grounded in an existentialist insistence on the necessity of self-invention.

This reading of Black Skin, White Masks sets Shatz against Afropessimist receptions of Fanon, which have claimed him as the philosophical spokesman of an ontological—not merely phenomenological or historical—anti-Blackness. As Jesse McCarthy explores in a critical essay, the theoretical foundation of Afropessimism links “racial exceptionalism, political immutability, ‘antiblackness’ as structural antagonism, and abjection in the form of ‘social death.’” Whereas each of these concepts predate Afropessimism, their particular synthesis, in the work of figures such as Frank Wilderson III, is often premised on a selective reading of Fanon.

Above all, this Fanon is a theorist of permanent abjection. For Wilderson, Césaire’s vision of “Blackness as invention” is hopelessly naïve; instead, he writes, “Blackness is a locus of abjection to be instrumentalized on a whim.” Similarly, Wilderson takes Fanon’s account of racial interpellation in Black Skin, White Masks to expose the “ruse of analogy.” The ontological and exceptional character of Black abjection means that “there is no analogy between the suffering of Black people and those others who find themselves subjugated by unethical paradigms”—and, consequently, that the very idea of interracial solidarity is a logical impossibility.

For Fanon, though, history was not essence, much less destiny; his diagnosis and etiology of the “epidermalization” of inferiority was not a prediction of its permanence. The Rebel’s Clinic shows that Fanon, true to his existentialist inheritance, was always oriented to a future in which the degradation of Blackness might be undone—not least, through a struggle against the global colonial order, which required forging solidarities across racial, religious, and national lines.

This is a helpful corrective to the Afropessimist Fanon, but it can slide easily into overstatement. Fanon may have had a “burning wish to achieve freedom from history,” as Shatz writes, but he was no ethical voluntarist. In what Shatz calls the “constant battle between the wound and the will,” Fanon’s exercise of will derived in part from “the discovery that race was a construction, not a biological reality,” which, Shatz argues, “fueled a sense of optimism about our ability to overcome racial conflict.” This is as misleading as reading Fanon as a stark racial pessimist. As Ghanaian philosopher Ato Sekyi-Otu argues in Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (1996), Fanon’s repudiation of “a race-reductionist foundationalism of moral judgment and conduct” did not render him optimistic so much as open to a range of racial futures—all of which would invariably reflect the “constraining consequence of colonial history.” For Fanon, Sekyi-Otu concludes, achieving a world free from racial hierarchy depends less on the “unencumbered freedom and optional decision of the moral subject” than on the ability to forge—out of “social agents caught in a tangled web of undeniable antagonism and ironic kinship”—a collective subject capable of creating a new set of conditions.

The complexities of Algerian revolutionary politics—especially its divisions between the military forces of the interior (the so-called “Army of the Frontiers”) and the political leadership in exile—shaped Fanon’s literal and ideological travels, which Shatz maps beautifully in the final third of Rebel’s Clinic. He places Fanon’s work in conversation with Algerian thinkers and political leaders such as Ferhat Abbas, Mouloud Feraoun, Mohammed Harbi, and Fanon’s colleague and friend Alice Cherki. Shatz’s framing of these figures as key interlocutors for Fanon marks another difference from Macey’s 2000 biography, which was more concerned with Fanon’s relation to the canon of postwar French theory. It also sheds further light on Fanon’s thinking about the relation between cultural tradition and political struggle, which animated his early engagements with Négritude.

Fanon consistently underestimated the power that Islam held among his adopted countrymen, including many of his fellow revolutionaries.

A central matter of debate within the FLN was the place of Islam in the revolution and in postcolonial Algeria. Shatz is wistful for the secular and pluralistic Algeria Fanon and his leftist comrades like Ramdane imagined, counterposing it to the tragedy of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s (which began after a military coup nullified an election victory by the Islamic Salvation Front, leading to eight years of violence between government forces and Islamist insurgent groups). But by confining himself to retrospective assessment, Shatz evades a full accounting of the implications of Fanon’s secularism in his own time.

Fanon was not entirely dismissive of Islam, and the clinical success he had in integrating aspects of Muslim practice in his experiments in social therapy at Blida caused him to reconsider the role of so-called “traditional culture.” In some of his writings during the revolution, most famously his chapter “Algeria Unveiled” in A Dying Colonialism, Fanon demonstrated a growing understanding that Islamic religiosity could serve as an expression of cultural rebellion in the face of French colonialism. Yet, simply as a strategic matter, Fanon consistently underestimated the power that Islam held among his adopted countrymen, including many of his fellow revolutionaries.

Political theorist Anwār Omeish further contends that Fanon held onto the common distinction between traditional and modern in Western thought, portraying the Algerian revolution as an “awakening” to a political identity that would supersede Algerians’ cultural and religious affiliations. (In this way, Fanon seems to have ironically recapitulated the perspective he had faulted Sartre for in his writing on Négritude.) Fanon’s portrayal of Algerians as traveling a road from Islam to secular anticolonial nationalism not only misrecognized the political sociology of Algerian society but also failed to reckon with a key feature of French colonialism itself. As historian Muriam Haleh Davis has shown, Islamophobia was the modality through which French racism expressed itself in Algeria; the French state framed its colonial project as an attempt to convert Muslim peasants into the “civilized” subjects of a market economy. The turn to Islam as a source of anticolonial resistance was not merely a refusal to face the future by returning to a communal tradition; it was a forthright rejection of the specific form of racialization that French colonial rule had imposed.

The “awesome task Fanon enjoins upon postcolonial humanity in their particular national communities,” Sekyi-Otu writes, “is nothing less than wresting from the West monopolistic stewardship of the ‘human condition’ in its concrete instance as the modern project.” As a participant in a revolutionary struggle in which he was decidedly an outsider, Fanon may have overlooked the ways that cultural resources already present in Algeria could be mobilized in support of that task. His experience is a reminder of the persistent challenge of navigating local social conditions in pursuit of a universalist political horizon.

Black anticolonial thinkers have long developed their political analyses and dreams of the future “on the scale of the world,” as political theorist Musab Younis has put it—not as a way of replicating the global imperial gaze but of resisting the “spatial and temporal fixities of imperial discourse.” Through engaging narration of Fanon’s global travels and international relationships, The Rebel’s Clinic stresses that Fanon, too, rebelled against being fixed in place and time. “There should be no attempt to fixate man, since it is his destiny to be unleashed,” Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks.

This orientation is also evident in Fanon’s own thinking about global order and the world-system, though Shatz largely neglects this theme. Indeed, the predicament of the postcolonial world was as much Fanon’s subject as the drama of decolonization. As he grew more invested in the politics of Pan-Africanism in 1958 and 1959, Fanon gained a greater sense of the obstacles that newly independent nations faced. Internal divisions of ethnicity, religion, and class—combined with external plays for economic and political influence by former colonial powers and the superpower of the United States—made so-called “flag independence” insufficient.

The predicament of the postcolonial world was as much Fanon’s subject as the drama of decolonization.

Proof of this insufficiency came in the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba—orchestrated by Belgium, carried out by internal secessionists in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, and blessed by the United States. In one of the book’s darkest moments, Shatz reveals that Fanon, who had formed a friendship with Lumumba, was informed in advance of the plot against his life by Holden Roberto, a CIA-backed Angolan leader whom Fanon had also befriended. When Lumumba was brutally murdered, with CIA approval, in January 1961, Fanon blamed himself—as he had after Ramdane’s death.

Shatz is appropriately unsparing in his criticism of Fanon’s “gullibility” about Roberto. At the same time, Lumumba’s fate speaks to Fanon’s prescience about postcolonial politics. For Fanon, the array of dangers postcolonial states faced came together in the figure of the “national bourgeoisie.” Obsessed with Western values, this class sought not true freedom for the nation but merely a seizure of class power once held by the foreigner. “For the bourgeoisie,” Fanon wrote, “nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period.” In the absence of a positive program to combat the underdevelopment created by colonialism, the leader of the new nation—backed by the national bourgeoisie—basks in the glow of history, invoking both the struggle for independence and the mythic past of cultural nationalism to justify his reign.

Shatz rightly sees in this analysis “a startling anticipation of the Mobutus and the Mugabes of the future,” lauding Fanon for his prescient critique of post-independence rulers who parlayed cultural nationalist appeals into popular legitimacy and personal riches. But this venality, for Fanon, was not only a character flaw; it was a function of their place in a hierarchical global economy. Colonialism created the conditions for the cravenness of the post-independence national bourgeoisie. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth:

As soon as the capitalists know, and they are obviously the first to know, that their government is preparing to decolonize, they hasten to withdraw all their capital from the colony in question. The spectacular flight of capital is one of the most constant phenomena of decolonization.

Absent a remaking of the global economic order created by colonialism, the new ruling classes had no choice but to pursue capital from whatever sources were available—opening the way for multinational corporations and international finance to exercise extraordinary power across the postcolonial world.

This sense of colonialism as a world-ordering project pervades Fanon’s analysis of anticolonial nationalism. On the one hand, because the slave trade and European colonization had precluded the free development of Third World societies, the development of “national consciousness” represented the only hope for the creation of a genuine “international consciousness.” “The building of a nation,” Fanon argued, was the counterpart to the “discovery and encouragement of universalizing values.” On the other hand, Third World nationalism would falter if it simply replicated the model of the nation-state that had first emerged in post-Westphalian Europe. The conclusion of Wretched offers a final series of admonitions, imploring leaders and intellectuals of the Third World not to “imitate Europe” or be “obsessed with catching up with Europe.”

Shatz understands these statements in a literary and philosophical register; to him they exemplify Fanon’s attempt to forge a new, truly universal humanism out of the wreckage of the false humanism of the European philosophical tradition. This existentialist reading does capture a core concern of Fanon’s thought. But it erases the fact that the conclusion of Wretched was also intervening in a conversation about how national liberation movements should orient themselves toward the European and American-led global order.

One participant in this conversation was Richard Wright, whose Native Son was an early inspiration for Fanon. In the final section of Black Power (1954), an account of his sojourn in soon-to-be-independent Ghana, Wright urged Kwame Nkrumah to be wary of Western capital, which would only lead Ghana “from tribal to industrial slavery, for tied to Western money is Western control, Western ideas.” While less focused on the specific politics of aid and investment, Fanon echoed this sentiment in Wretched: “Let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it.” For Fanon, liberation into Western capitalism and European nationalism wasn’t liberation at all. Rather than an opportunity for more states to join the so-called “liberal international order,” decolonization was a way of revealing its pathologies—and beginning to overcome them.

As war rages in Gaza and Ukraine, the pathologies of this order are more visible than ever. Shatz writes, in his conclusion, that “our world is not Fanon’s, yet his critique of power and international relations retains much of its force.”

So, too, does his diagnosis of the ways the violence at work in the racial and colonial ordering of the world can wreak havoc on the human mind. One can hear echoes of Fanon’s pursuit of disalienation in the words of Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish. In a January interview with journalist Alexia Underwood, Darwish bore witness to the colonial warfare unfolding in Gaza—and its attendant mental disorders:

One of the real struggles during these times is not to lose your mind, because one of the goals of any oppressive system, like colonialism, is to make the oppressed crazy. It’s a system of control. If they succeed, then no one will listen to you when you start shouting. I’ve seen this happen to people around me, so I became a little obsessed with it. When I endure atrocities or witness them, I question myself, and remember this, and it pulls me back to sanity.

As Fanon once wrote: “Madness is one of the ways that humans have of losing their freedom.”


Sam Klug is Assistant Teaching Professor at Loyola University Maryland and Visiting Scholar in the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard. He is author of the forthcoming book, The Internal Colony: Race and the American Politics of Global Decolonization.

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One Response to “Who’s Afraid of Frantz Fanon?”

  1. Just now saw the Comments form, perhaps you might move this up so people see it? I just ordered Wretched of the Earth and I intend to be in touch with Sam Klug because of shared interest in the understanding of “internal colonialism.”

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