Fanon wrote about how the Black man, cowed by the colonists’ unprecedented mixture of greed, righteousness, and military efficacy, tended to internalize the demoralizing judgment delivered on him by the white gaze. “I start suffering from not being a white man,” Fanon wrote. “So I will try quite simply to make myself white.” But mimicry could be a cure worse than the disease, since it reinforced the existing racial hierarchy, thereby further devastating the Black man’s self-esteem. Inspired by Sartre, who had argued that the anti-Semite’s gaze created the Jew, Fanon concluded that Blackness was another constructed and imposed identity. “The black man is not,” he wrote in the closing pages of “Black Skin, White Masks.” “No more than the white man.”
This argument also underpins the political programs that Fanon proposes in “The Wretched of the Earth,” in which he argues that, because colonialism is “a systematized negation of the other,” it “forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: Who am I in reality?” By the time he wrote the book, however, his focus had shifted. “The misfortune of the colonized African masses, exploited, subjugated, is first of a vital, material order,” he wrote, against which the grievances of educated Black men like him did not appear as urgent. In a withering review, published in 1959, of Richard Wright’s “White Man, Listen” (1957), Fanon wrote that “the drama of consciousness of a westernized Black, torn between his white culture and his negritude,” while painful, does not “kill anyone.”
For much of “The Wretched of the Earth,” Fanon raises an issue that he thought Wright, obsessed with the existential crises of literary intellectuals, had ignored: how “to give back to the peoples of Africa the initiative of their history, and by which means.” Distrustful of the “Westernized” intelligentsia and urban working classes in the nationalist movements fighting for liberation, he saw the African peasantry as the true wretched of the earth, and the main actor in the drama of decolonization. According to Fanon, “In colonial countries only the peasantry is revolutionary,” since “it has nothing to lose and everything to gain” and, unlike bourgeois leaders, brooks “no compromise, no possibility of concession.”
Fanon did not seem to realize that he shared the indignities of racism and his self-appointed tasks with many anti-colonial leaders and thinkers. Gandhi, after all, had once been as loyal to the British Empire as Fanon was to the French, and, while working as a lawyer in South Africa in the late nineteenth century, had likewise been racially humiliated into a lasting distrust of the identity politics of whiteness. So, too, did Gandhi’s vision of political self-determination draw on a need to heal the wounds inflicted by white-supremacist arrogance. His concept of nonviolence fashioned a new way of thinking and feeling, one in which human good would not be defined only by Western males.
Many other Asian and African leaders of decolonization had a similar intellectual and political awakening. Educated in Western-style institutions and inhabiting the white man’s world, these men were often the first in their countries to be directly exposed to crude racial prejudice. Renouncing their white masks, their failed attempts at mimicry, they took it upon themselves to rouse and mobilize their destitute and illiterate compatriots, who had passively suffered the depredations and insults of white colonialists. As members of a tiny privileged élite, they saw it as their duty to devise non-exploitative economic and social systems for their people, and foster a culture in which alienating imitation of the powerful white man gives way to pride and confidence in local traditions.
It was Fanon’s broader experience of the colonial world in the nineteen-fifties that refined his political consciousness. In 1954, a year after moving to Algeria to take up a psychiatric residency, he witnessed the beginning of the Algerian revolution. Within a couple of years, his opposition to the colonial crackdown got him thrown out of the country. He joined the revolutionary movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, and, from a new base, in Tunis, travelled across Africa—Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Guinea, Congo—as a representative of the F.L.N. and its provisional government-in-exile.
By this time, Africa and Asia had manifested a range of ideological alternatives to racial capitalism and imperialism: the peasant Communism of Mao Zedong, in China; in Indonesia, Sukarno’s brand of Islam-inflected socialism, Pancasila; Kwame Nkrumah’s Positive Action protests, in Ghana. Meanwhile, the Cold War was drastically curtailing the autonomy of newly liberated nations. To protect their interests, Western powers were replacing costly physical occupations with military and economic bullying. They cast about for collaborators among élites and sometimes overthrew and murdered less tractable leaders. One of the most prominent victims of a Western assassination plot was a friend and an exact contemporary of Fanon: Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of Congo, who was killed in 1961. Political and economic incapacity in many fledgling nation-states also forced their leaders to seek help from their former overlords. A few months after Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika gained independence from Britain, their leaders sought the British Army’s help in suppressing mutinies over low pay.
Oddly, “The Wretched of the Earth,” published during this partial transfer of power from white to Black and brown hands, barely mentions Asia or much of Africa, and has nothing at all to say about the Middle East. Fanon appears not to have intimately known any of the societies he travelled through, not even Algeria. Yet, by reflecting scrupulously on his experience as a powerless Black man in exile, he was able to see through the Cold War’s moralizing rhetoric to the insidious new modes of social and political coercion. It was probably during his time in Nkrumah’s Ghana that he developed his view of single-party rule: “the modern form of the bourgeois dictatorship stripped of mask, makeup, and scruples, cynical in every aspect.” The formulation has, in the past six decades, accurately described the political systems in Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.
Fanon also presciently described the politically explosive gap between urban prosperity and rural poverty, and the toxic consequences of inequitable development, even in countries he never visited. Those bemused by the spectacle of an educated middle class and a globalized business élite devoted to India’s Narendra Modi, a far-right autocrat, can find a broad outline of this situation in “The Wretched of the Earth”:
The defects and omissions in Fanon’s book are also revealing. His relentlessly male perspective reduced liberation from colonialism to the frustrations and desires of men like him. Proposing that the native’s virility and will to power could counter the violence of the colonialist, he reinforced a hypermasculinist discourse of domination. Not surprisingly, politics remained a vicious affair in Algeria for decades after the French departed.
As an heir to the secular French Enlightenment, and seemingly unaware of non-Francophone cultural traditions, Fanon was blind to the creative possibilities of the past—those deployed, say, by Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia, in their battles for survival against logging and mining corporations. Conversely, his theory about the revolutionary potential of African peasants now seems all too clearly the romantic fantasy of an uprooted, self-distrusting intellectual. In Africa, the urban working classes turned out to be far more important to decolonization than the peasantry.
Countries in which peasants proved crucial to national liberation, such as China and Vietnam, came no closer to starting a new history of man. Contrary to what Fanon ardently hoped, even the strongest post-colonial nations, such as India and China, are “obsessed with catching up” with their historical tormentors, and have engendered, in this imitative process, their own rhetoric of obnoxious narcissism.