The Wretched of the Earth

by Frantz Fanon

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

In Fanon’s vision, the colonized, the proletariat of the world, are the damned or wretched of the earth. As a black psychiatrist who chose to become an Algerian citizen, Fanon invented a collective therapy that he believed would save a race of the damned. That therapy is based on the premise that the black man will remain enslaved until he has successfully struggled for and achieved his political freedom.

More permanent in its effects than strikes, boycotts, or demonstrations, the armed insurrection of the Algerian people, according to Fanon, would bring about the total transformation of a colony into a community free of any psychological, emotional, or legal subjection; within that society, the colonized would be fully human. Fanon further argues that the entire structure of the Algerian family would change. Relationships between parents and children or between husbands and wives would lose their restrictive, traditional character; Arabic would lose its religious exclusivism, and French would become domesticated. Violence would create a new spiritual unity which would prepare the country for the enormous task of national postwar reconstruction.

The year 1960 marked independence for Algeria. This, for Fanon and for many Africans, however, was considered a false independence, one granted by France to nationalist leaders who still remained her dependents. The division of the Mali Federation between the French Sudan and Senegal was widely interpreted as an indication of the evils of “neocolonialism.” In the midst of the independence celebrations, Fanon saw that independence did not necessarily constitute a new beginning but more often merely replaced one species of man with another. The exploited now became the exploiters.

The reluctance of the new African nations to assume the burdens of their revolutionary duty stemmed, according to Fanon, from a lack of understanding of the fundamental nature of the political world. The African elites had no ideological foundation beyond a simple nationalism. In his final work, Fanon offered them an alternative.

The French title of his book, Les Damnes de la terre (the damned of the earth), taken from the first line of the Internationale, is more richly connotative than its English translation. The wretched of the earth elicit pity, but the damned are beyond hope. The fate of the wretched can be improved by charity, but the damned must be resurrected. In imagery which critics say links him with Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet, the damned are the rat pack, the prostitutes and pimps, the brutal peasants, who invade the city through the sewers. When the city goes up in flames, the damned are purified in its fire.

Fanon’s discussion of violence combines a psychoanalytic tradition with a Marxist one, but a Marxism revised to encompass a colonial world where the relations of production are themselves a superstructure rooted in the relations of colonialism. In Fanon’s view, in the beginning colonization is imposed through violence. The violent reaction it generates among the members of the colonized, however, is then turned inward, taking the form of muscular tension, heightened criminality within their own community, and tribal wars. Hope lies in the redirection of this internalized aggression onto external objects, utilizing this energy for a destruction which purges and purifies. The most powerful reservoir of violence is to be found not in the cities, themselves artificial constructs of colonialism, but in the country among the peasants, the true revolutionaries. Yet Fanon warns that the violent potential of the people must always be channeled by a vanguard which understands its use.

Nevertheless, Fanon has been charged with surrounding his concept of violence with a considerable amount of ambiguity. Critics state that he...

(This entire section contains 984 words.)

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dodges any responsibility for possible consequences by putting the blame for its use on the other side: The need for violence in the struggle for national liberation is a function of the size of the resident white minorities; it is used by the colonial power in maintaining its hegemony. The type of political action that would bring about ritual purification, however, is never made explicit.

It seems that for Fanon, violence encompasses almost the entire range of political pressure. He explains that while in some situations there is no alternative to armed struggle, elsewhere the struggle may be symbolic only and decolonization will be rapid. By stressing “commitment” to rather than fulfillment of the act, he appears to be maintaining that violence is both an evil to be feared and a good to be desired.

Much of Fanon’s anger in The Wretched of the Earth is directed against the new bourgeoisies arising after independence. These groups are made up of city-based individuals, sometimes including urban laborers, who were well treated in the colonial period; more often, they are merchants scavenging on neocolonialist ventures. The bourgoisie that Fanon describes is an underdeveloped class—small businessmen, artisans, administrators, university personnel, army officers—that lacks capital or highly trained technical personnel. Consequently, they readily replace the European settlers who have fled and are hostile to any kind of genuine socialism (which might curb their newly found economic power).

In the new states, as material progress declines, the bourgeoisie is often forced to hide behind a popular, charismatic leader, who urges his subjects on to greater effort for a smaller reward. Moreover, the bourgeoisie allows the national party to disintegrate; useful in organizing mass participation in the struggle for independence, it is no longer needed in peacetime. Thus, the new parties become part of the machinery for controlling the people.

Fanon is at his best when describing middle-class structures within the Third World. Nevertheless, his theories weaken when they approach specific methods for destroying the structure, for destroying the dictatorship of the middle class. Believing that the hope for a better future lies in the country, Fanon describes the possibilities for rebuilding more radical national parties based in rural areas. Decentralization would rejuvenate the countryside and “deconsecrate” the capital, hopelessly corrupted by European rule and thought.


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