Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) is one of the twentieth century’s most significant anti-colonial intellectuals. Born in Martinique under French colonial rule, Fanon joined the anti-Vichy Free French Forces in World War II and served in North Africa and France. After qualifying as a psychiatrist in Lyon in 1951, he ended up in French Algeria and practiced at the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital until he was deported in 1957 for his political sympathies toward the Algerian national struggle. Fanon formally joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in exile in Tunis and represented the movement on the international stage. He also participated in editing its French-language publication El Moudjahid, where his own work appeared. Fanon died as he was waiting for treatment for leukemia in the United States, having just completed his political testament The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which was famously prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Fanon’s writings on colonialism, racism, and anti-imperialism have had a massive impact around the world, especially in the Global South. In addition to Wretched, he wrote Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959), and Toward the African Revolution (1964). Wretched is, without a doubt, Fanon’s most important book. Nothing like it exists in the annals of anti-colonial letters. No other political text expresses as astutely and productively the whole conjuncture of decolonization, with its distinctive contradictions and possibilities. By targeting colonialism and positing a new egalitarian society in the future, Fanon captures the voice and critical orientation of a whole generation of radical intellectuals.
To read Wretched is to enter a world of colonial division, national conflict, and emancipatory yearning. As a text, it combines dynamic critique with political passion, historical probing with denunciation of injustice, reasoned argument with moral indignation against suffering. This is how it inspired a whole generation of radicals around the world to transform societies that were slowly emerging from colonial domination. By identifying the racism and structural subordination of the colonial predicament, as well as charting a humanist route out of it, Fanon defined a politics of liberation whose terms and aims remain relevant today.
But many of Fanon’s recent academic critics, and even some of his sympathizers, continued to distort and misconstrue Wretched. They inflated the significance of one element in the book over all others: violence. And they underplayed Fanon’s socialist commitment and class analysis of capitalism, which are two essential components of his anti-imperialist arsenal. Nowhere is this truer than in recent postcolonial theory. Indeed, postcolonial theory has come to posit violence as the theoretical core of Wretched. Homi K. Bhabha, for example, has turned Fanon’s work into a site of “deep psychic uncertainty of the colonial relation” that “speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change.”1 In his recent preface to Wretched, Bhabha reads colonial violence as a manifestation of the colonized’s subjective crisis of psychic identification “where rejected guilt begins to feel like shame.” Colonial oppression generates “psycho-affective” guilt at being colonized, and Bhabha’s Fanon becomes an unashamed creature of violence and poet of terror. He concludes that “Fanon, the phantom of terror, might be only the most intimate, if intimidating, poet of the vicissitudes of violence.”2 This flawed interpretation eviscerates Fanon as a political intellectual of the first order. It also skirts far too close to associating Fanon’s contributions with terrorism — a bizarre interpretation for Bhabha to advance in the age of America’s “war on terror.” Rather than emancipation, it is terror, Bhabha posits, that marks out Fanon’s life project.
It is hardly surprising that, in order to turn Fanon into a poet of violence, postcolonial theorists have had to deny his socialist politics. This begins with Bhabha himself, whose intellectual project is premised on undermining class solidarity and socialism as subaltern political traditions.3 Ignoring Fanon’s socialist commitments is also evident in Edward Said’s reading of him in Culture and Imperialism, which is historically sparked by the First Intifada and Said’s critical disenchantment with Palestinian elite nationalism. If Said is profoundly engaged with Fanon’s politics of decolonization and universalist humanism, he nonetheless fails to even mention the word “socialism” in association with Fanon, let alone read him as part of the long tradition of the socialist critique of imperialism. This dominant postcolonial disavowal of socialist Fanon is also articulated by Robert J. C. Young when he bluntly states that Fanon is not interested in “the ideas of human equality and justice embodied in socialism.”4
Sartre never made that mistake, though his reading of Fanon is not without its flaws. In his famous preface to the book, Sartre does actually inflate the significance of violence in Wretched. His stark injunction is to “Read Fanon: you will learn how, in the period of their helplessness, their mad impulse to murder is the expression of the natives’ collective unconscious.” Decolonization, as a result, becomes indelibly associated with a “mad fury,” an “ever-present desire to kill,” and “blind hatred” in which the colonized “make men of themselves by murdering Europeans.”5 It is hard to stress how damaging this invocation of murder has been for understanding Fanon’s life work and his conception of decolonization.