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‘Any bystander is a coward or a traitor’ – Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary challenge

Books Review

Wednesday 8 December 2021, by siawi3


Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

‘Any bystander is a coward or a traitor’ – Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary challenge

December 6, 2021

Sixty years after his death from leukemia at the age of 36 on 6 December 1961, and the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Timothy Wild reviews a new book which reminds us of the relevance of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s work, Wild argues, continues to engage people by its brilliance, rage, analysis, and hope that the poor can be the authors of their own destiny.

By Timothy Wild

From the end of May until a few days before Remembrance Day (November 11) flags at Canadian public buildings were flown at half-mast. This unusual occurrence was in recognition of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. The unearthing of the graves shocked many non-Indigenous Canadians, but it came as no surprise to Indigenous Peoples themselves who had long maintained that the graves were there and more would be discovered. They knew that some of their children never came home from these institutions; but their concerns went unheard or were dismissed. Many of the children who did return home were scarred for life, and this trauma then had an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of future generations. Overall, this chapter is yet another tragic dimension in the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Residential Schools, the last of which closed in the mid-1990s, were an instrument purposefully designed to undermine the culture and nuanced connections of Indigenous Peoples to time, each other, and the environment. The government and mainstream Christian Churches acted in strategic solidarity in a long campaign structured to annihilate Indigenous cultures, both figuratively and literally. The schools were just one of the tools used by settlers, and their superstructure, to impose control over the totality of economic, social, cultural, and extractive relations. This campaign has resulted in social dislocation, loss of resources (including land and natural resources) and inter-generational trauma and marks the fact that the dark history of colonialism is still an eternal present in post-colonial Canada.

Part of my journey of understanding this dark history has involved reading and re-reading books on this ever-present historical tragedy, and that’s how I approached a closer study of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Legacies of Recognition (2014). Using the work of the Martiniquen born, French educated and Algerian by choice psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) as a foundation – particularly Black Skin, White Masks – Coulthard argues that the conventional politics of recognition currently undertaken in Canada needs to evolve into “a resurgent politics of recognition premised on self-actualization, direct action and the resurgence of cultural practices that are attentive to the subjective and structural composition of settler-colonial power”. In expanding on Marx by, for example, considering the impact of dispossession of land, as opposed to implementation of proletarian status on Indigenous Peoples, Coulthard applies a Fanonist framework to the current operation of neo-colonialism in Canada, and blends the psychology of the individual with the structural of the collective in his trenchant analysis and, equally important, call for action.

Obviously, the need for attention to the ongoing alienation and dislocation caused by colonialism in postcolonial societies is not only a Canadian phenomenon. The ongoing importance and wide-spread influence of Frantz Fanon in terms of both theory and practice reflects that fact. Admittedly, there have been highs and lows in terms of Fanon’s place in the academic canon, due in large part to criticism regarding his framing of the role of violence in the process of decolonization, together with the fashionable disregard for meta-theories of liberation. However, his works continue to inform counter-hegemonic theory and practice around the world, and his words and ideas are as refreshing as ever. Fanon continues to engage people by his brilliance, his candour, his analysis, his guarded optimism and his sense of people being agents in their own destiny.

Coming sixty years after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth and his death from leukemia at the age of 36, Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth, edited by activist and scholar Nigel Gibson, provides a solid overview of the relevance of Frantz Fanon to the work of those of us who still believe that a just and humane world is both necessary and possible. Throughout the volume the contributors provide space and examples of a Fanonist development of radical humanism, which provides for the psychological development of the person within the context of consciousness raising, collective action and structural change. Through a variety of examples, the book also clearly demonstrates the fact that the agents of change do not simply have to be the usual suspects of the industrial working class but includes – and must include – the peasantry and the various manifestations of the lumpenproletariat. As noted by Gibson, “Fanon’s new humanism is a politics of becoming, based on the fundamental transformation of paralyzed Black and colonized subjects into new human beings through the liberation struggle” (p. 300).

Gibson then modestly concedes that the volume is “by no means exhaustive: it is rather something fragmentary, reflecting the moment” (p. 9). While that is a fair statement – I will comment on some of the gaps later – the bottom line is that this is an excellent book and marks Gibson’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that Fanon remains accessible and relevant to a wide-range of audiences, academic and popular. The theory is certainly there. All the chapters, for example, pay attention to the role of consciousness-raising, the psychological trauma (indeed mental illness) caused by oppression, the blend of individual development and collective growth, the need for democratic discourse and leadership, and the destructive role played by the national bourgeoisie in alliance with outside forces.

However, in line with Fanon and respect for the development of mass support and organic intellectuals, the theoretical content of the book is woven together in a wonderfully accessible collection of essays demonstrating the ongoing importance of Fanon in a range of settings and on a diversity of social issues. Taken together the work provides multiple examples of the emancipatory potential of the “living politic” which is “the thought from the ground about the reality of our lives” as discussed by the South African activist S’bu Zikode (p. 124).

The book is divided into three sections. The first section contains several chapters written by ‘Fanon Militants’ and provides essays on Fanonist practices in a number of settings including Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Palestine. For me, the core element of this section can be found in the idea of “consciousness raising”. Subjects covered include the use of radio by a diverse group of women in England as a means of developing a person’s optimal psycho-social functioning, the deconstruction of the class and gender ridden term “White Syrian” and what it means to confronting the brutal Assad regime, and the experience of being Black facing daily racism, “systematic terror” and micro-aggressions in an overtly racist Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago, casting people into a zone of “non-being”.

The impact of Fanon on Black Consciousness is also clearly animated in this initial section of the book. Chapters on Fanon and the emergence of “New Afrikan Communism” and his influence of Black people imprisoned by the prison-industrial complex are two of the themes specifically associated with that longstanding link. A particular highlight of this section was contained in a chapter written by Toussaint Losier where he discussed the role played by Owusu Yaki Yakubu and how he developed a way to closely read Fanon which would engage his fellow prisoners, including those held largely incommunicado in the brutality of long-term solidarity confinement. The extension of Marxist thought, together with a dash of Freud and Hegel, shines through in this section in the intersection of race, gender and class. Taken together this section provides a mix of those structural variables, and how they fit together as an organic whole rather than a linear progression of mutually exclusive sociological categories.

The second section – ‘Still Fanon’ – moves into a more theoretical approach to the application of Fanon to transformative change and provides a number of excellent examples of why Fanon is still relevant and, perhaps more importantly, needed as a guide to engaged mass political action. As noted by, for example, David Pavon-Cuellar, in a passionate call for change and justice makes the important point that the “Wretched of the Earth are still here”. Pavon-Cuellar does not mince words and he insists on using the term “Third World” as opposed to “Global South” in his analysis. He argues the point that the historical example of de jure decolonization has not actually provided for the wellbeing of the rural and urban poor. Building upon the remarkable resilience of capitalism to do what it needs to ensure its domination and insatiable appetite, Pavon-Cuellar notes that “Colonialism had to change to stay the same” (p. 233). He puts it bluntly when he argues that the “current globalization of this neoliberal capitalism is the consummation of colonialism. Similarly, imperialism triumphs and disguises itself in the new global consensus” (p. 246).

Building upon this blend of passion and informed analysis, a major theme in this section of the book is related to the role played by the “national bourgeoisie” in terms of propping up the systems of oppression, exactly as highlighted by Fanon himself. The article by Ayyaz Mallick on Pakistan gives clear examples of the role played by national governments in terms of meeting the similar needs of a variety of global players, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, and the crises that result from this difficult balance.

Nigel Gibson contributes an important contextualizing chapter to this section of the book where he locates Fanon as both “a clinical practitioner and as a political practitioner” within the dynamic of movement. By paying attention to both the internalization of colonial messages and the environment constructed by post-colonial capitalist relations, Fanon provides a way to support the development of “disalienation” and the common good. As noted by Gibson, reflecting the dynamic of theory and practice has to be undertaken in unity with the people and is related to an evolving and tentative process of becoming, rather than a static case of being “…a moment of becoming is always incomplete. For me, this is an essential element of Fanon’s anti-formalist dialectic” (p. 283).

The final section of the book is loosely arranged around the idea of Fanon’s homes, essentially places he lived (such as Algeria in “The New Algerian Revolution”, the chapter by Hamza Hamouchene) together with places where his thinking has had a significant impact. These include the influence Fanon had on Black Consciousness in America, excellently chronicled by Lou Turner and Kurtis Kelley and on the growth of the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, powerfully presented by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh. To me, however, this section was the most uneven in terms of readability. For example, I found the essay on postcolonial criticism and theory too academic for a book that attempted to make Fanon more accessible.

This may also have been related to the fact that this section also contained the transcription of a meeting between some of the leaders of the South African landless activist group Abahlali baseMjondolo and Nigel Gibson, which was beautiful in its integrity, honesty and dignity. What spoke to me most about this particular chapter was that it provided a sense of Fanon happening in real time and spoke to Gibson’s demonstrated desire to link Fanon with “the reader’s own lived experience” (p. 10). In this discussion, Gibson provided an overview of certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth – which he prefers to call Les damnes de la terre in its original French – and then members of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke about concrete application of Fanon’s works. To my mind at least, this chapter made the essential point that “awakening is a constant process” (p. 433). By putting Fanon into this process, and extending our understanding of Marxism, the argument is made that this can result in a “living communism” (p. 433).

The second section of the third part of the volume, dealt exclusively with Brazil, and contained essays on COVID-19 and the impact on Black people in Brazil together with pieces on “Black Female Intellectual Production” and one on the economic exploitation of Amazonia. These were undoubtedly interesting pieces, and they dealt with pressing socio-political issues related to the daily operation of both neocolonialism and neoliberalism. However, it is still unclear to me why Brazil was chosen as a focused topic for this section. Fanon noted that Rio as a city and construct was an offence to Indigenous people, and talked about the exploitation of young Brazilian women, but why three chapters were devoted to specific issues in Brazil was not immediately apparent. As mentioned, the issues are important, but they could have been examined within other contexts, particularly given Gibson’s previous comment about the content not being exhaustive.

Inevitably a lot is left out, and the list of what should or could have been included will be large, depending on one’s area(s) of interest. For example, I felt that more attention could have been given to Indigenous politics and Fanon in North America. As I have suggested, Coulthard has made a solid contribution to this nexus and that foundation could certainly be built upon, and it would have blended well with the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the need for a decommodification of land.

Furthermore, although there was an essay on racial and class-based injustice in Trinidad and Tobago, a chapter on current events in the Caribbean would have been useful, especially given Fanon’s relationship to the area, particularly the French Caribbean. I would also like to have seen greater attention to the ongoing influence of Fanon in southern Africa. I know that this was neither a history nor a biography, and Gibson has commented significantly elsewhere on Fanon and South Africa, but the influence of Bantu Stephen Biko was tremendous, both in and out of the country. In the South African Communist Party, though they continue to maintain the idea of a two-stage revolution, there were individuals who had read and digested Fanon – Chris Hani for one. Further analysis of this in relationship to the neocolonial project of white monopoly capital would certainly have been welcomed. I would also have liked to read about what role, if any, Fanon has played on the political consciousness of Zambians and civil society, given their almost textbook experience with neocolonial relations, extractive commodity dependence, the wrath of international funders, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment forays and, most lately, crippling foreign debt to both China and Europe.

Finally, in light of the selfies, compromises, the self-serving displays of Clinton, Blair and Obama, and empty promises of COP26 in Glasgow, I think a discussion of Fanon and his impact on eco-socialism would have been of considerable merit and could also serve to engage a new field of activists, especially younger people. I believe that Fanon’s notions of consciousness raising, and healthy ego functioning, lend themselves directly to a green movement. I regard this as a missed opportunity in the book, especially when issues related to the alienation of land, the neocolonial extraction of resources and the psychosocial implications of environmental change for the rural poor and lumpenproletariat where themes raised throughout the book. Fanon can certainly inform the eco-socialist movement, by literally placing the person within their environment.

Still, Gibson’s volume is an excellent companion to Fanon’s works. It is not only suggestive of how one can read Fanon, but also how it can be applied in a transformative politics. The bibliographies accompanying many of the chapters provide the reader with specific area and topic guides.

Ultimately, though, the major point is that Fanon is still relevant sixty years after his death in 1961. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity”. Certainly, a much-needed call to action. Individuals continue to be subject to the daily pain of alienation, they experience the daily indignity of threats to their various and multiple experiences of well-being. Millions face very real threats to their survival, both physical and psychological. Despite the hope that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decolonialization did not help people on the social, cultural, and economic margins of these newly “independent” nations. The national bourgeoisie mimicked their colonial masters and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The brutality simply took another form, and the exploitation continues apace.

Nigel Gibson and the other contributors to the book remind us that Fanon can help support the process of disalienation and promote opportunities for hope over fear; but this needs democratic relationships and the ability to listen. It also requires not only consciousness but the will to collectively act on that collective awareness. Following from this it requires organization. As suggested by Pavon-Cueller, “The still wretched of the earth need from their allied intellectuals the continued reading of Fanon in a militant, politically committed way, and not just for academic research or reflection” (p. 246). As the book constantly reminds us, we need Fanon to help animate the struggle so we can all breathe more freely and easily.

Nigel Gibson, ed., Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth (Daraja Press 2021).

Timothy Wild is a social worker in Calgary, Canada. He has worked with the JCTR in Lusaka, Zambia and he is particularly interested in the intersection of community development and social policy.