Fanon wrote of how the black man, intimidated by the settlers’ unprecedented mixture of greed, righteousness and military efficiency, tended to internalize the demoralizing judgment rendered him by blank gaze. “I’m starting to suffer from not being a white man,” Fanon wrote. “So I’ll just try to get myself whitewashed.” But mimicry could be a worse cure than evil, as it reinforced the existing racial hierarchy, thus further destroying the black’s self-esteem. Inspired by Sartre, who argued that the gaze of the anti-Semite creates the Jew, Fanon concluded that Darkness was another constructed and imposed identity. “The black man is not,” he wrote in the closing pages of “Black Skin, White Masks”. “Neither does the white man.”
This argument also underlies the political programs that Fanon proposes in “The Damned of the Earth”, in which he argues that, because colonialism is “a systematized negation of the other”, it “obliges the colonized to ask themselves. constantly asking the question: who am I? me in reality? By the time he wrote the book, however, his focus had shifted. âThe misfortune of the colonized, exploited and enslaved African masses is first of all vital, material,â he writes, against which the grievances of educated black men like him do not appear urgent. In a scathing review, published in 1959, of “White Man, Listen” by Richard Wright (1957), Fanon wrote that “the drama of the conscience of a Westernized black man, torn between his white culture and his negritude”, although painful, don’t “kill anyone.”
For a large part of the “Damned of the Earth”, Fanon raises a question that he thought Wright, obsessed with the existential crises of literary intellectuals, had ignored: how “to give back to the peoples of Africa the initiative of their history, and meaning. “Mistrustful of the ‘westernized’ intelligentsia and the urban popular classes in the nationalist movements struggling for liberation, he considered the African peasantry to be the real wretch of the earth, and the actor main part of the tragedy of decolonization. According to Fanon, “in colonial countries, only the peasantry is revolutionary” because “it has nothing to lose and everything to gain” and, unlike bourgeois leaders, does not tolerate “any compromise, no possibility of concession â.
Fanon did not seem to realize that he shared the indignities of racism and its self-proclaimed tasks with many anti-colonial leaders and thinkers. Gandhi, after all, had once been as loyal to the British Empire as Fanon was to the French, and, while working as a lawyer in South Africa in the late 19th century, had also been racially humiliated in enduring distrust. with regard to identity politics. of whiteness. Likewise, Gandhi’s vision of political self-determination was based on a need to heal the wounds inflicted by white supremacist arrogance. His concept of non-violence shaped a new way of thinking and feeling, in which the human good is not defined only by Western men.
Many other Asian and African leaders of decolonization experienced a similar intellectual and political awakening. Educated in Western-style institutions and inhabiting the world of white men, these men were often the first in their countries to be directly exposed to gross racial prejudice. Renouncing their white masks, their failed attempts at mimicry, they took it upon themselves to wake up and mobilize their destitute and illiterate compatriots, who had passively suffered the depredations and insults of the white colonialists. As members of a small, privileged elite, they saw it as their duty to design non-exploitative economic and social systems for their people and foster a culture in which the alienating imitation of the mighty white man gives way. pride and confidence in local traditions.
It was Fanon’s broader experience of the colonial world in the 1950s that sharpened his political consciousness. In 1954, a year after moving to Algeria for a residency in psychiatry, he witnessed the start of the Algerian revolution. In a few years, his opposition to colonial repression had him expelled from the country. He joined the revolutionary Front de Liberation Nationale movement and, from a new base in Tunis, traveled across Africa – Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Guinea, Congo – as a representative of the FLN and its provisional government in exile. .
By this time, Africa and Asia had manifested a range of ideological alternatives to racial capitalism and imperialism: the peasant communism of Mao Zedong in China; in Indonesia, Sukarno’s brand of Islam-influenced socialism, Pancasila; Kwame Nkrumah affirmative action protests, Ghana. Meanwhile, the Cold War greatly reduced the autonomy of the newly liberated nations. To protect their interests, the Western powers replaced costly physical occupations with military and economic bullying. They sought collaborators among the elites and at times overthrew and murdered less submissive rulers. One of the most important victims of a Western assassination plot was a friend and exact contemporary of Fanon: Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of Congo, who was killed in 1961. Political and economic incapacity many nascent nation states also forced their leaders to seek help from their former overlords. A few months after Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika gained independence from Britain, their leaders requested the British military’s help in quelling mutinies over low wages.
Curiously, “The Damned of the Earth”, published during this partial transfer of power from white hands to black and brown hands, barely mentions Asia or much of Africa, and has nothing at all to do with it. tell about the Middle East. Fanon does not seem to have known intimately any of the societies in which he traveled, not even Algeria. Yet, through careful reflection on his experience as a powerless black man in exile, he was able to see through the moralizing rhetoric of the Cold War to insidious new modes of social and political coercion. It was probably during his stay in Nkrumah’s Ghana that he developed his vision of the one-party regime: “the modern form of bourgeois dictatorship devoid of mask, make-up and scruples, cynical in all respects”. The formulation has, over the past six decades, accurately described political systems in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and many other countries.
Fanon also foresightedly described the politically explosive gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty, and the toxic consequences of inequitable development, even in countries he has never visited. Those baffled by the spectacle of an educated middle class and a globalized business elite devoted to the Indian Narendra Modi, a far-right autocrat, may find a glimpse of this situation in “The Damned of the Earth ” :
The faults and omissions in Fanon’s book are also revealing. His relentless male outlook reduced liberation from colonialism to the frustrations and desires of men like him. Proposing that the virility and the will to power of the native could counter the violence of the colonialist, he reinforced a hypermasculinist discourse of domination. Not surprisingly, politics remained a vicious affair in Algeria for decades after the French left.
As an heir to the secular French Enlightenment and seemingly oblivious to non-Francophone cultural traditions, Fanon was blind to the creative possibilities of the past – those deployed, for example, by the indigenous peoples of Canada and Australia in their struggles for the survival against logging. and mining companies. Conversely, his theory on the revolutionary potential of African peasants now appears too clearly as the romantic fantasy of an uprooted and suspicious intellectual. In Africa, the urban working classes have proven to be much more important for decolonization than the peasantry.
Countries in which peasants have proven essential to national liberation, such as China and Vietnam, are not about to start a new human story. Contrary to what Fanon ardently hoped, even the strongest post-colonial nations, like India and China, are “obsessed with catching up” with their historical tormentors, and in this process of imitation have engendered their own rhetoric of odious narcissism.
Yet Fanon’s doubts about decolonization and his ideas about the links between psychic and socio-economic change have never seemed more prophetic and salutary than in today’s racially charged climate. The growing demands for dignity from non-whites, as well as the ascendancy of China, have destabilized a Western self-image built over decades where only white men seemed to make the modern world. This weakening of the authority of the imperial era resulted in a proliferation of existential anxieties, marked by increased exploitation of the talking points of the culture war in politics and the media. Thus, attempts to account for the long neglected legacies of slavery and imperialism clash with Churchill and Confederacy cults, and critical race theory becomes an electorally powerful bogeyman for the right. Meanwhile, as Eric Zemmour, a demagogue of Algerian Jewish descent, waves the banner of white supremacy and Islamophobia in France, and Taliban fanatics inherit an Afghanistan devastated by the withdrawal of Western powers, decolonization seems far from triumphantly over. On the contrary, it looks like the dark and ambiguous and open transition described by Fanon. Sixty years after its publication, “The Damned of the Earth” reads more and more like the admission of a dying black man of a true impossibility: to go beyond the world made by white men. ??