The Broad Mind | Are we still a wretched earth?

By Divya Gangadar

A review of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

The impact of Fanon’s thought is widespread and has inspired many anti-colonial liberation movements around the world. Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and a writer, born in Caribbean island of Martinique. He was influenced by Négritude philosophy, a literary and ideological movement, developed by black intellectuals, writers, and politicians in France in the 1930s. The Négritude writers found solidarity in a common black identity as a rejection of perceived French colonial racism. Through his writing, Fanon explored areas such as post-colonial studies, critical theory, Marxism, decolonisation and the psychopathology of colonisation. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) served as a highly influential book that examined the impact of colonialism and the process of decolonisation. Watching the Algerian masses struggle under their colonisers made Fanon an ardent supporter of anti-colonial movements. His experiences in colonial and post-colonial Africa led to the writing of this book.

Decolonisation process

Witnessing the extent to which colonial powers subjugate and enslave the colonised masses led Fanon to believe that employing violence was the only way to purge the exploiters. Fanon stated that the colonisers maintained inequality by the use of force, by denying educational opportunity, and by forced segregation in living arrangements. Armed rebellion and mass uprisings was thus justified in order to get rid of such dichotomy. He also reasoned that violence was the only language that a colonialist society understood. Fanon proposed a Leninist style proletarian revolution and called for charting a new course for humanity. Through a violent insurrection, which destroyed everything associated with colonialism, he said that a new species of man would be created.

In the chapter titled, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, he argues that in many cases, the national middle class that took over the governing of a newly independent nation was just a veiled form of the former colonial regime.

Fanon also reflected on the way nationalistic tendencies had deviated. He wrote, “we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism”. His criticism of the national bourgeoisie from the perspective of nationalism is that one does not have to be white to be an exploiter. Fanon stated that decolonised nations would degenerate into petty identity politics, religious discord, and ethnic clashes and eventually transform into dictatorial regimes. The history of several decolonised African, West Asian and Latin American nations have been drawn on similar lines, and some are caught up in this struggle even today. Towards the end of the book, Fanon, also presented a series of case studies of people affected by mental disorders caused by colonialism and the struggle for independence.

Critical appraisal

Fanon’s argument becomes relevant even in the case of the Arab world. The decolonised Arab countries that are headed by the national bourgeoisie maintain close ties with western nations, especially the United States of America, who maintain their hegemony in the oil-rich gulf regions. Like Fanon, Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism maintained that the Arab world did not achieve true independence and continued to remain tied to the interests of their western colonisers. The western powers in turn did not support democracy in the fear that it would destabilise their authority in the region.

Fanon’s point about giving the masses a say in their government was a critical factor in the book. However, his method of using a Leninist style revolution was not necessarily the right path and came across as ideological. Revolutionary war had seen its fair share of power politics with devastating consequences, as in the case of Stalin and Mao. Scholars like Olorunsola state that Fanon’s perspective on using violence was extreme and seemed to be over-generalising from the specific example of French colonialism.

Fanon also ridiculed the notion of formal independence granted through moderate means. He stated that negotiation did not bring about effective decolonisation. The non-violent struggle in India stood here as a stark alternative. The Indian experience of decolonisation was a mixture of moderate and extremist elements, where the role of the Indian revolutionaries cannot be denied. African nationalists, Palestinian commandos, Bangladesh guerrillas of 1971-72, and the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s are some of the many groups who claimed to have been influenced by the writing.

According to Abayomi Azikiwe, Fanon’s legacy may continue to this day by influencing the current struggles in the Arab peninsula and North Africa, where there is a dearth of leadership, organisation and ideology. The significance and relevance of the book lies in the way that it breaks down the cycle of injustice perpetrated by the ruling class in the process of decolonisation, and its deep insights that help us understand the hopes and struggles of the colonised or today’s refugees, the ‘stateless’ and the like. Accordingly, it could be asked, five decades after Fanon posits, are we still a wretched earth?

Divya Gangadar is completing her internship at the Takshashila Institution.