Review: Franz Fanon – A life by David Macey

In the late 1960s, the name of Frantz Fanon became associated with the idea of a armed revolution in the ’Third World’. In the words of his biographer, David, Macey, in his new book, ’Frantz Fanon: A life’,  "Fanon came to be seen as the apostle of violence, the prophet of a violent Third World revolution that posed an even greater threat to the West than communism", and "the spokesman of a Third Worldism which held that the future of socialism – or even the world – was no longer in the hands of the proletariat of the industrialized countries, but in those of the dispossessed wretched of the earth".

Review of ‘Frantz Fanon: A Life’, by David Macey. (Published by Granta Books, London, 2000 (paperback edition, 2001)).

For a period, Fanon was a well-known figure and his ideas had significant influence. Today, Fanon is not well remembered, though his writings sell moderately well and have become the subject of a minor industry in academia. Macey’s biography may help to change that. It is an excellent and exhaustive account of Fanon, the psychiatrist, the revolutionary, and the writer – a man who asked questions.

Formative years

Fanon was born on 20 June 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Martinique was a French colony and was dominated by a minority of white settlers. Fanons’ family were reasonably well off however, and could afford to send him to the local lycee, an opportunity only available to 4% of black children at the time.

Whilst at the lycee Fanon came under the influence of Aime Cesaire, a proponent of the concept of "negritude" (a black revolutionary consciousness). Cesaire later joined the Communist Party, before moving to the right and forming the Party Populaire Martinique. In time, he became the dominant political figure on the island and remained so for some decades.

At the age of 17 years, Fanon left Martinique, now under the control of pro-Vichy forces, and made his way to Dominica in an open boat. He joined the Free French forces and fought in North Africa and France, where he was wounded in action and decorated. His experience of racism, in Martinique, in the army, and on the streets of the France he helped to liberate, shaped his political outlook.

Fanon the psychiatrist

After leaving the army Fanon trained as a doctor before specialising as a psychiatrist. During his training in France he came under the influence of the Catalan psychiatrist Francois Tosquelles. Tosquelles had been a support of Catalan nationalism as a young man but by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was an active member of the Partido Obrero de Unifacion Marxista or POUM. He served on the Aragon front, where he helped to organise a psychiatric service, and selected soldiers for machine-gun and tank units. From early 1938 he was responsible for psychiatric services for the whole of the Republican Army. After the Republican defeat Tosquelles fled Spain to France, crossing the Pyrenees on foot.

It appears that Fanon was a diligent student and an idealistic and hard working doctor. He participated in innovative movements that were leading towards more humane treatment of psychiatric patients.

Fanon primarily employed medical approaches to the treatment of mental illness but was well able to place symptoms in their social context, not something all doctors or psychiatrists can do easily to this day.

He did not adopt the fashionable approach of the time, based on Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud and his followers traditionally "observed" politics (Freud famously gave this advice to his adherents in Germany on the coming to power of the Nazis). Passivity did not sit easily with Fanon’s character. By this time he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with France, with mainstream medicine and psychiatry. Partly by design and partly by accident he took up a post in the then French colony of Algeria in 1954.

There he continued his pioneering work – he helped found the first psychiatric day hospital in Africa and attempted to introduce social treatments. Soon, however, Fanon was distracted by the outside world. When he arrived in Algeria the war of independence was already raging, and at first in clandestine fashion, and then openly, Fanon became involved with the Front Liberation Nationale (FLN), the main Algerian nationalist grouping.

The Algerian War

The Algerian war of independence officially started in 1954. In reality it had begun much earlier. An Algerian novelist describes Victory in Europe Day in 1945 in this way:

"8 May means two different things. In France, it means the jubilation of the Liberation. In Algeria, it means the horror of repression. Between 25,000 and 40,000 victims in three days, in three small towns in the east of Algeria. With the charming and exotic names of Setif, Evelma, Kherrata…People were thrown, dead or alive, into deep crevasses"

This savagery was a consequence of the deaths of some two hundred European settlers, massacred by the nationalists. Released Italian POWs in the "Arab hunt" joined police, troops and armed settlers.

The episode went largely unreported in France. The French Communist Party (PCF) paper, L’Humanite, reported only that "fascist provocateurs" had opened fire on Muslims who then retaliated, leaving perhaps one hundred dead.

In the aftermath of this terrible repression a few guerrilla groups formed in the mountains but it would be 1954 before full-scale conflict erupted. This undeclared war was to last for eight years and took a terrible toll. One million French conscripts served in Algeria, 27,000 of whom never returned. The number of Algerians killed is unknown. The French admit that 141,000 combatants died; the Algerians claim one million dead.

Fanon began by treating wounded FLN fighters and then became a journalist in the FLN press. He was soon forced to resign his medical position and to leave the country as his life was in danger. He became a sort of roving ambassador for the struggle in a number of African capitals and a FLN spokesman at international conferences.

He survived at least one assassination attempt (in Rome) but ultimately was to die prematurely of natural causes. He developed leukemia and passed away in Washington on 6 December 1964.

On the day that news of his death reached Paris his most famous book ‘Les Damnes de la Terre’ (‘The Wretched of the Earth’) was seized by the police on the grounds that it was a threat to national security. His body was flown back from America and carried across the militarised border between Tunisia and Algeria for a secret nighttime burial on occupied territory.

The ideas of Frantz Fanon

In his short life Fanon produced an impressive body of work. His first book ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ was an exploration of the psychology of colonialism. ‘A Dying Colonialism’ or ‘Year Five of the Algerian Revolution’ followed and a collection of pieces, ‘Towards the African Revolution’, was published posthumously.

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ is his most famous work, partly because of a fierce preface penned by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is this work which has cemented his reputation as a proponent of violent revolution. The US translation appeared in 1965 and was reprinted seven times in the course of a year. It has since been translated into seventeen languages.

Whilst Fanon has been lauded since his death the reality is that he had little influence over the direction of the FLN when he was alive. His writings were more influential after his death, and then outside Algeria and France. For a period in the late 1960s his name and ideas were invoked by a bewildering variety of causes and groups.

In the US, Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael claimed Fanon as one of his "patron saints" and Eldridge Cleaver boasted that "every brother on a roof top" could quote Fanon (despite this Fanon could certainly not be described as a black nationalist). In 1968, a journalist noted Fanon’s book, ‘Les Damnes de la Terre’ piled up with ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’ and works by Regis Debray, when visiting Palestinian militants in Jordan. In the late 1960s, a Cuban ‘Movimento Black Power’ developed and for a brief period its Afro hairstyled members discussed Fanon and other black writers until the suppression of the group in 1971. In 1968, a spokesman for the separatist Front de Liberation Quebecois (FLQ) defined himself as a "Quebecois proletarian, one of America’s white niggers, one of the "wretched of the earth"".

The late 1960s and the early 1970s were a time of revolutionary upheaval and political turmoil. A host of "new" ideas jostled for position with "orthodox" Marxism. For a period Algeria, like Cuba, appeared to offer an alternative model to the fossilised ‘communism’ of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

At the time, the forces of genuine Marxism, as represented by those who were seriously seeking a way to the organised working-class, were small and lacked influence. In this context, it is not surprising that all sorts of alien ideas came to the fore. Maoism became a mass or semi-mass force in a number of countries, ’Guevarism’ (or guerrillism) lead a generation of Latin American militants out of the cities and into the mountains, and ‘Third Worldism’ misled tens of thousands.

Fanon had very clear views as to which classes in society would lead the revolution, ideas that are entirely at odds with Marxism. He had certainly read Marx, and quoted him occasionally, but his work was much more influenced by the existentialist phenomenology of Sartre. Third Worldism exaggerated the role of the peasantry and the dispossessed of the colonial and ex-colonial world (the lumpen proletariat) whilst downplaying the role of the working-class or proletariat.

Fanon, whilst he was mistaken, drew his conclusions from bitter experience. The PCF and the French Socialist Party played a negative role as the Algerian revolution unfolded. When Algerian separatists demonstrated in May 1945, the PCF and the Parti Communiste Algerian (PCA) issued a joint leaflet condemning the organisers as "Hitlerite provocateurs". They maintained a hostile attitude to the Algerian revolutionaries for many years. When the Algerian War exploded in 1954 the French Interior Minister was the future ‘socialist’ President Francois Mitterand, who stated baldly that Algerian was French soil and would remain French.

Fanon’s legacy

Fanon would have been gravely disappointed by the results of the Algerian struggle. The Algerian revolution did not usher in a new era of democratic socialism and today the country is racked by violence as Islamic fundamentalists battle a military regime. Ironically, the fundamentalist Islamique de Salut (FLS) use Fanon’s writings on revolutionary violence to justify the savagery with which they attack the Algerian regime.

Whilst the Revolution did not deliver for the poor neither will the FIS. Like Islamic fundamentalism everywhere, the FIS represents reaction and has only gained a social base as a result of the betrayal of the mass communist and socialist parties of the Islamic world. The solution to the misery faced by the masses lies with genuine socialism, not with Islam.

After his death, Fanon’s French wife Josie stayed on in Algeria. In 1988, she watched from the balcony of her flat as the army shot down demonstrating workers and youth in the street below. She reportedly sighed, "Ah Frantz, the wretched of the earth again". Her despair at the path the Algerian revolution had taken is said to have contributed to her suicide a short time later.

If Fanon’s life and work have taught us anything it is that a life of passive observation is not a life lived fully. He was both a thinker and an activist. In a letter written a few days before his death he outlined his philosophy: "We are nothing on this earth if we are not in the first place the slaves of a cause, the cause of the people, the cause of justice and liberty".

His ideas may have been flawed but he was above all else a fighter. We would all do well to take note of the final line of Fanon’s first book: "My final prayer: oh my body, make me always a man who asks questions".

The reviewer is a member of the Socialist Party (CWI section in Ireland) and works as a psychiatrist in the NHS in Belfast.

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April 2002