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Frantz Fanon was a black psychiatrist and author from Martinique who also led a life as a philosopher and revolutionary (Micklin 1). He was from a middle-class family, but soon started supporting very liberal ideas when he personally experienced the abuse of the Martinique people by the French army (at the time, Martinique was a French colony). He spent some time in Lyon for school and even served in the French army. However, he believed that speaking French was a method of accepting French oppression. He wrote a few influential novels, but his most famous novel, The Wretched of the Earth, addressed the abuse of the Algerians by their French colonizers (Micklin 1). Because of its controversy, France eventually banned the book (Ehrenreich 1). Although the novel mainly deals with the struggle of colonized countries in the hands of their European colonizers, it also focuses on how ideology is spread, the effects of imperialism and nationalism, racism, and particularly the role of violence in the problem and solution.
This book was especially interesting because of its strong style. At first, it seemed that it would be difficult to sympathize with anything in the novel, since it is advertised as a very radical book. But Fanon’s blunt, passionate words sound so natural and honest that it is almost as if Fanon is lecturing this book from a podium. This is probably because he actually dictated this novel from his deathbed, while he was dying from leukemia (Micklin 1). Fanon wrote this novel so that is has no plot or characters. Instead, he refers to only the “colonists” and the “colonized” as the two main opposing forces. He gives some examples of these, most of which are about French Algeria (the French were the colonists and the Algerians were the colonized), since he had seen this occur firsthand. This leads to another reason as to why the book is so effective. Fanon is not speaking from an unbiased perspective. He is putting himself in the place of the colonized, repetitively stating things like “the West wants to condemn us,” letting the reader know that the situation has affected him too (57). In addition, this illustrates how passionate he is about the subject since it is personal for him. He also gains credibility and his audience is more likely to listen to him and trust him.
Fanon splits this book into five main sections-the first, and perhaps most unforgettable, is called “On Violence.” In this portion of the text, Fanon basically labels the entire act of colonizing as an act of violence. First of all, the colonists commit violence against the colonized. And in return, the colonized respond with violence. However, the colonists are truly violent. Fanon claims that “the work of the colonist is to make even dreams of liberty impossible for the colonized” (50). The colonized are only violent in response because that is what it expected of them and it “unifies the people” (51). This is the only way for them to decolonize and maybe one day reach their goal-according to Fanon-of eventually being the colonists (16). So even though Fanon criticizes colonization as a cycle of violence, he advocates violence as the only solution for colonized to take.
The second part of the novel, “Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity,” deals a lot with nationalist parties and the general distrust of rural masses. Fanon discusses the lumpenproletariat, which is the group of people below the working class (81). These people are criminals, prostitutes, homeless people, and anyone who does not fit into the working class. They are crucial for revolutions because they were typically not modernized or educated and probably were not fully integrated into the newly introduced colonial society. Therefore, they would not be oppressed by accepting the new language and culture and would be more willing to take action. So Fanon rallies them to take revolt, as they are probably the most likely to succeed. This is interesting though because if he really is trying to rally the lumpenproletariat, this is a very weak way. The literary rate of the lumpenproletariat probably would not have been very high since they were mostly uneducated. This is only made worse by the fact that this book is particularly difficult to read and understand. So how would the lumpenproletariat be able to read Fanon’s message (unless they had it tediously dictated to them)?
The third section, “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness,” focuses on racism. Because Frantz Fanon was black, much of his writing is focused on the plights of Africans and their struggles under European rule. But although he focuses on this particular group of people, it is reasonable to assume that his analyses could be extended to most other colonies. Europe, after all, has colonies all across the world and not just in Africa. Another important point Fanon makes in this section is that “the behavior of the national bourgeoisie of certain underdeveloped countries is reminiscent of members of a gang who, after every holdup, hide their share from their accomplices and wisely prepare for retirement” (118). This is interesting since Fanon obviously portrays the bourgeoisie as the savages as opposed to the less educated, working class. He assumes that their desperation means that their success is short-lived and because of the lack of stable government and political leaders, the army becomes necessary as an arbiter. This continues the cycle of violence just as Fanon mentioned in the first section.
In the final section, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” Fanon claims that because of the “systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity,” the colonized are forced to ask “who am I in reality?” (182). When France colonized the Algerians, the Algerians completely lost their individual identities and their culture. The Europeans impose their own culture on them, but they obviously will never become a true European. This fits in interestingly with their determination to overthrow the government. It is a very smart move to remove each colonized citizen’s identity, because then they are less likely to fight for themselves if they have no idea who they are. This section was also interesting because it examined different cases of mental disorders resulting from colonization. This included the psychological effects on both the Algerians and the Europeans. So even if a European comes across Fanon’s novel and is not affected by the Algerians’ problems, perhaps he would feel sympathy for his fellow Europeans. For example there is the European police officer that met one of his Algerian victims at the hospital (194) and the European police officer that was so used to torturing Algerians that he tortures his own family (196). Both find their personal lives highly influenced by their past actions. This also illustrates that war really does affect everyone, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
Although this book was interesting and provocative to read, Fanon could have improved in a couple of areas. This novel would have been better if it was more fluid and comprehensible. Fanon seems to jump from point to point without much order. This could partly be attributed to the book’s translation from French. Since Fanon mostly used his own personal experiences and a few primary sources for the novel, it would have been better with a lot more secondary sources comparing the colonization of Algeria to other instances of colonization. Fanon could have described other situations where colonized people revolted and whether they successfully or unsuccessfully decolonized. If he could have found an example where the colonized used violence successfully, that would have helped his argument a lot. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to the novel, he states that many do not agree with Fanon’s support of violence as a solution (xlvi). But Fanon had valid points in his argument. In fact, maybe Fanon should have expanded more on his “On Violence” section because it seems like this is the only section that offers true solutions to the problem. So Fanon does not necessarily go too far when he says the colonized must rise up and revolt with violence. The colonists used violence during their colonization and didn’t seem to listen to the colonized’s protests. So that only leaves violence as a logical solution.
Even though this novel is very radical, most of Fanon’s points are understandable; it is easy to imagine how they could apply to many modern situations-anticolonialism, civil rights, and even our current situation in Iraq. It is interesting to think about this in a time when there are not many direct methods of colonialism. Because of this novel’s exploration of colonial struggles, The Wretched of the Earth has become one of the most famous novels dealing with decolonization.
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