Fanonian Concept of Violence

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Les damnés de la terre, which is literally translated “the damned of the earth,” was originally published under its French title in 1961, shortly before the death of its author, Frantz Fanon, on December 6, 1961. Fanon had written the work over a 10-week period of astonishing labor after learning that he had leukemia. The philosopher-psychiatrist was one of the most infamous revolutionaries in the French-speaking world, having formally joined the Front nationale libération (FLN), the group that led the fight for Algerian independence. Although there was a price on his head, Fanon managed to evade capture and met with Jean-Paul Sartre, the most celebrated living philosopher of the time, and persuaded him to write the preface to the work. The work had an immediate great influence on the French-speaking world. Two years later, in 1963, it was translated into English and published as The Wretched of the Earth.
There are few books that have had as much impact on contemporary thought as The Wretched of the Earth. It was described by the Black Panthers as “the handbook of the Revolution,” and it immediately became essential reading for all left-wing intellectuals. The right wing attacked it viciously as a warmongering text, and members of the more orthodox left attacked it as “unscientific.” Yet its impact has been such that its readership ranges from college students reading “canonical texts” in universities to high school dropouts trying to figure out their situations as they live in the midst of poverty, squalor, and violence. Even a quick read of this classic, controversial text will explain these responses.

The Central Argument

The main thesis of the book is that freedom must be taken, never given. Because of this, the English title misrepresents the text, since Fanon did not consider colonized people and those subject to international racist policies to be “wretched.” They lived as “damned” people because they all, even the innocent among them, suffer the same plight. The colonizers structure their relationship to the colonized as one of legitimate possession. This means that they see themselves as having a right to the conquered people's land. Thus, when the conquered and colonized fight to regain what they, too, consider to be rightfully theirs, they are accused of attempted theft. In both instances, there is, in other words, a situation of perceived theft. Fanon challenged the nonviolent resolution of this face-off—decolonization. The colonized paying for the land would, in effect, be like their paying robbers to return the goods the robbers stole from them. What's more, colonizing groups also bring a set of values that present their actions as rightful and just, and they bring along their military forces to support them. These values usually ascribe greater worth to the lives of colonizers than to the lives of the colonized. Since the decolonization process requires retrieving the land, standing up to the military, and denying the superiority of the colonizing group, an analytic of violence emerges. When the colonized are asked to be nonviolent, it means that they are asked to request change in a form that is acceptable to the colonizers. In some cases, that means so-called change without the colonizers losing anything.

Types of Violence

Fanon asserted that violence creates many shifts. First, it is an act of seizing freedom. Second, it creates a situation in which innocents suffer, which strengthens the opposition to the colonial relationship. Third, it stimulates new sets of values by toppling the colonizers from the status of gods. Fourth, it cannot be maintained, which means that new resolutions must occur. And fifth, and perhaps most controversial to left-wing thinkers, he argued that the logic of colonialism is such that its best agents are those that are a contradiction of the entire system and are most willing to take on its instruments of violence—namely, the police and soldiers. These are the lumpenproletariat, the criminals and outsiders. Added to this are the peasants, since colonized countries often lack an industrial base. His response to first world intellectuals who demand a period of “development” before taking action was similar to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s response in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: If they were in the position of the colonized, they, too, would see why they cannot wait.
Fanon then took on third world mainstream leadership by arguing that after decolonization, the new guard of elites would prop themselves up as mediators between the old colonizing forces and the new regime. We know this today as neocolonialism. The money stolen by these elites in former Zaire and other parts of Africa come to mind. Money is borrowed to build the nation, then stolen by these elites and placed in foreign banks while the people continue to incur debts on the interest. Fanon's message is summed up in the phrase, “Every generation has its mission.” The mission after independence is to build up the infrastructure of the nation. The individuals who inherit the nation after independence are often a weak national bourgeoisie, people whose power is linked not to material capital— which would affect the infrastructure of the nation— but to cultural and service work. In other words, they often depend on their status as race representatives mediating between the old regime and the new. The new struggle, then, becomes fighting this bourgeoisie in the hope of achieving a genuinely postcolonial society. Fanon closed the book by asking for a material and conceptual struggle. The material struggle is to build up the nation's infrastructure—that is, roads, hospitals, sanitation, schools, and so on. The conceptual struggle involves new ways of knowing and understanding ourselves as human beings. He described this as “shedding our skins and setting afoot a new humanity.”
The Wretched of the Earth has proven to be a very prescient book. Many of the problems about which Fanon warned have come to fruition, and the third millennium has been greeted by struggles for the dignity of humankind in a very regressive era. The image of Fanon has been rewritten many times, as the spate of books and articles on him attest. In the end, the man makes the most sense in the context of an appreciation of the revolutionary force of his ideas. He called upon us in that influential work to question the interpretation of the world that has been offered to us so that we can, in another voice whose echo resounds from a century and a half past, change it.

References

Keywords

  • the wretched of the earth
  • decolonization
  • left wing politics
  • bourgeoisie
  • infrastructure
  • elites
  • theft

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Fanon, Frantz. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press. This is Fanon's major work on the question of violence in relationship to oppression.
  • Gordon, Lewis. (2000). Existentia Africana. New York: Routledge. Gordon provides a thorough discussion of existence from an African point of view. This is a serious work for the person interested in African philosophy.