The Partisan Psychiatrist

REVIEWS, 17 Jun 2024

Arvin Alaigh | Dissent – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024, 464 pp.

Frantz Fanon and the medical team at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, where he worked from 1953 to 1956.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Frantz Fanon’s psychiatric work was the most practical manifestation of his larger ambition to restore agency to alienated subjects.

Spring 2024 – Frantz Fanon’s stature swelled in the late 1950s as he crisscrossed the nascent Third World, winning support for the Algerian nationalist cause. As a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the party fighting a war of independence against Algeria’s French colonial rulers, Fanon held a dizzying number of responsibilities: he provided psychiatric treatment to FLN fighters; he helped produce the party’s official newspaper; he delivered lectures on philosophy and history to soldiers at the front; and he traveled across the African continent as a formal ambassador for the provisional Algerian government-in-exile, raising political and financial capital for the revolutionary movement.

Such prominence came with enormous risk. As Fanon ascended through the ranks of the FLN, French forces put him in their crosshairs. In 1959, La Main Rouge, an anti-FLN paramilitary death squad funded by French intelligence, followed him to Rome, where he had traveled to receive medical treatment after a car accident in Morocco. Just before an FLN operative went to pick up Fanon from the airport, a bomb detonated underneath his car, killing a nearby child. Upon hearing that his whereabouts had been publicized in a news report about the explosion, Fanon demanded to move hospital rooms and narrowly escaped an armed assassin who burst into the original room. Following this close call, Fanon slipped out of Rome and returned to Tunis, where he’d been living in exile.

Fanon’s enemies weren’t restricted to French colonial forces; he also found adversaries within the FLN itself, an organization rife with internal power struggles. As a quiet critic of the leadership, he could well have emerged as a target of the FLN’s post-revolution purges, which saw scores of operatives kicked out of the party and many others killed. But he died of leukemia at age thirty-six, months before Algeria won its independence in 1962. One of the final acts of his truncated life was dictating what would become his most influential work to his secretary from his deathbed. The Wretched of the Earth, heralded by Stuart Hall as the “Bible of decolonization,” diagnosed the political, social, and psychological conditions of colonial rule with a degree of clarity and force unseen until (and since) its publication. It also defended the use of revolutionary violence by the colonized against their colonial oppressors, an aspect of his work that has received disproportionate attention and been stripped of all its nuance.

In the years following his death, Wretched vaulted Fanon into the pantheon of anti-colonial luminaries. Radical nationalist movements across Africa, Asia, and South America championed his writing, as did the Black Panther Party in the United States. In the 1980s and ’90s, his work was embraced by the academy, where cultural theorists and post-structuralists enlisted his corpus into esoteric and politically inert debates. Meanwhile, activists who were rightly wary of attempts to defang his revolutionary politics wrestled over which Fanon was the authentic one. In the quest to define “the” Fanon, however, we risk losing what made him so extraordinary. Fanon had no singular identity. He spent his life in perpetual motion—physically, intellectually, and politically.

Of the numerous English-language biographies chronicling Fanon’s life and work, Adam Shatz’s The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon is perhaps the most intellectually rich. Shatz, one of the great essayists of our time, presents an imperfect and brilliant figure—one that complicates the predominant myth of Fanon as a one-dimensional apologist for violence. For over two decades, Shatz has reported from France and North Africa, writing on the lingering legacies of colonial rule, and he boasts an incredible command of the multiple intellectual and political contexts that shaped Fanon, including the Négritude movement, the postwar Francophone philosophic and literary milieu, the fissures splitting the FLN during the revolution, and the burgeoning clinical movements displacing orthodox French psychiatry.

Shatz’s admiration for his subject is evident, and yet he carefully avoids the hagiographic impulse that drives much of the scholarship on Fanon. He scrutinizes Fanon’s uncomfortable and, at times contradictory embrace of revolutionary violence; he uncovers deeper dimensions of Fanon’s debts to female writers such as Suzanne Césaire and Simone de Beauvoir; and he critically appraises Fanon’s apparent dismissal of Freud by illuminating his numerous inheritances from the founder of psychoanalysis. In the process, Shatz breathes life into Fanon, urging us to think alongside him to make sense of our current world.

Fanon’s body lies in a martyr’s cemetery in eastern Algeria. While he died an honorary Algerian, he was born thousands of miles away, on the small Caribbean island of Martinique. This was where he first inhabited the racial hierarchy structuring colonial society, though it would take years for him to develop a deeper understanding of the colonial condition. Two episodes helped furnish this consciousness: encountering racism from white Europeans during the Second World War, in which he fought as a member of the Free French Forces, and his subsequent experiences as a medical student in Lyon in the late 1940s. His first book, Black Skin, White Masks, is a sprawling study of the social alienation of colonized Black people and its manifestations in politics, literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. The book began as his medical dissertation, until his department rejected the topic (he eventually submitted a deferential yet rigorous dissertation on Friedreich’s ataxia, a neurodegenerative disease).

After his residency and a short stint practicing psychiatry in Martinique and France, Fanon received a clinical posting in Algeria in 1953 at Blida-Joinville, the largest psychiatric facility in the country. Already politicized, he covertly joined the FLN within two years of moving to the country. Fanon treated the occupying French police and military officers in his official clinical capacity by day and FLN resistance fighters by night.

Unlike David Macey, who authored the last great Fanon biography over two decades ago, Shatz offers a robust examination of Fanon’s career as a psychiatrist, an aspect of Fanon’s life that has received renewed attention since the 2015 publication of dozens of his psychiatric writings. Shatz explores Fanon’s tenuous but formative relationship with psychoanalysis. Notions of the unconscious, repression, and Lacan’s mirror stage informed his conceptions of Black and colonial subjectivity, and yet he argued that psychoanalytic ideas centered on European family structures, such as the Oedipus complex, couldn’t be uncritically applied to the Algerian subject. (He also maintained a personal interest: “As soon as I’m finished with this Algerian Revolution,” he said to his secretary, “I will undergo analysis.”) As head of Blida-Joinville, he strove to reform the clinic’s approach to treatment. He experimented with institutional psychotherapy, a radical form of institutionalization that aimed to restore subjectivity to patients by blurring the boundaries between society and the hospital.

For Shatz, Fanon’s psychiatric work is at the heart of his political project. It was the most practical manifestation of his larger ambition to restore agency to fundamentally alienated subjects. In colonized societies, just as in psychiatric hospitals, freedom required the development of the consciousness through the active creation of new social, political, and psychic structures. For Fanon, this capacity for freedom was critical, and it distinguished him from segments of the postwar French intellectual milieu that, under the spell of surrealism, romanticized madness as a “visionary” or liberating force. “For a descendent of slaves in a former sugar colony,” Shatz writes, “it was impossible to confuse the condition of mental and physical disintegration with emancipation from an oppressive social order.”

By the end of his life, Fanon found himself increasingly disillusioned with the FLN. He had been inspired by the promise of a revolutionary movement that could cultivate a nation grounded in a liberatory social consciousness. But now he saw a party overrun with myopic, ideologically unmoored military men, eager to marshal ethno-religious chauvinism to forge an Algerian identity that excluded ethnic and religious minorities. Drawing on these experiences in Wretched, Fanon predicted that most national independence movements would end with a consolidation of political power by native elites, whose self-enriching impulses would calcify colonial-era social and economic divisions. Meanwhile, neocolonial powers such as transnational corporations would continue to plunder formerly colonized nations. Against this bleak future, it was critical to build internationalist solidarity—for Fanon, this meant a Pan-African project—to free newly independent nations from the power structures of the old world.

Unlike some postcolonial thinkers, Fanon never rejected Western modernity per se. Instead, as he wrote in Wretched, he sought to transcend it by creating a universal consciousness rooted in a “new humanism.” This radical project, which required “look[ing] elsewhere besides Europe” for inspiration to “invent a man in full,” remained his goal through the end of his life. Postcolonial national consciousness was a conduit to that end. What that tangibly meant for a new nation-state is hard to say.

Fanon made some explicit recommendations for a postcolonial society, including redistributing wealth in order to collapse the power of the native bourgeois and ruling classes. But he never provided granular models of political institution-building, nor did he discuss the mechanics of governance in any detail. As Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, Fanon does not present “a prescription for making a transition after decolonization.” Still, we can sketch the outlines of a postcolonial nation reordered along Fanonian lines: an emancipated, democratic, pluralistic, and collectivist society, attuned to the necessities of psychic repair and committed to dismantling colonial hierarchies.

This ambitious vision has largely been overshadowed by Fanon’s infamous engagement with the question of violence. Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Wretched, which extols the virtue of violent action, came to overshadow and mischaracterize Fanon’s more nuanced position. Some readers of Fanon have taken revolutionary violence to be the paramount expression of agency and self-determination, and by extension, the only important vector through which Fanon’s revolutionary commitment may be appraised. In doing so, they hold that any act of violence by the oppressed against their oppressors is (morally, politically, or otherwise) sanctified. For Shatz, Fanon has a more complicated relationship with violence, one that is partly obfuscated by the problem of translation. For example, in some English versions of Wretched, the phrase “la violence désintoxique” appears as “violence is a cleansing force,” when it means something more like “detoxifying violence,” the implication being that the colonial condition induces a sort of stupor that violence can serve to awaken the colonized out of. These sorts of misapprehensions may appear minor, but they have disproportionately shaped how we remember Fanon today.

Two weeks after October 7, Shatz penned an essay in the London Review of Books reflecting on the violence in Israel and Gaza. Much of the piece soberly reflected on the suffering caused by the Israeli occupation and offered a grim prognosis of the bloodshed that lay ahead for people in Gaza. Shatz also took aim at some members of the “decolonial” left, who “seem almost enthralled by Hamas’s violence and characterise it as a form of anti-colonial justice of the kind championed by Fanon.” The essay ignited a fierce, and productive, debate on how advocates of Palestinian freedom ought to engage with the use of violence.

As in The Rebel’s Clinic, Shatz sought to counter simplistic readings of Fanon by presenting a more multidimensional figure. As a partisan of the FLN, Fanon actively supported violent tactics. At the same time, as a psychiatrist, he worried about the lingering psychic and social wounds that violence could cause. Fanon ends Wretched of the Earth with case studies of Algerians and French people who suffered from war-induced mental illness. “The overwhelming impression left by Fanon’s case studies . . . is that the disintoxicating effects of violence are ephemeral at best,” Shatz writes. Violence is akin to shock therapy—and just as shock therapy alone cannot cure a patient (and can cause new harms), violence alone cannot birth a just society. Against the tendency to flatten Fanon into an icon of violent resistance and nothing more, Shatz presents a portrait of a man whose position evolved as he grappled with the most urgent questions on the quest for liberation.

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Arvin Alaigh is a writer, activist, and PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Dissent is a magazine of politics and ideas published in print three times a year. Founded by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser in 1954, it quickly established itself as one of US’ leading intellectual journals and a mainstay of the democratic left. Dissent is a non-profit organization that publishes the very best in political argument and takes pride in cultivating the next generation of labor journalists, cultural critics and political polemicists.

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