By Etien Jasonson - HSPS Student @ Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Of all the chapters in The Wretched of the Earth, the first – ‘Concerning Violence’ – often receives the most attention. However, there is so much more to Fanon’s seminal text than a call for violence, and to understand the book in this way misses Fanon’s valuable contribution to post-colonial studies. Instead, Wretched of the Earth should be understood as a sort-of manifesto for post-colonial nation-building amid an impassioned description and critique of the forces of empire, racism and capitalist elitism.
Within ‘Concerning Violence,’ Fanon hopes to provide an explanation for why and how violence manifests in colonial society. He argues that, when faced with repression from all angles by an enemy as powerful as the colonial regime, native people become violent within their ranks as the only outlet for their abuse and degradation. The individual who accepts colonial rule denies their own identity and accepts a colonial status below that of ‘human,’ but if that individual resists colonial rule then they will almost certainly be killed by the regime. This lack of escape, Fanon argues, leads to a rise in general violence, criminality and disorder which the colonial regime then seeks to shut down through further violence and repression. This “circle of hate” (p.89) grows until the native people begin a violent overthrow of the colonial regime, reclaiming their land, their freedom and certain (though not all) aspects of their cultural identity. It is the act of fighting together against a common enemy, Fanon writes, which “mobilises the people; that is to say, it throws them in one way and in one direction” (p.93).
Common critiques of these arguments include claims that Fanon glorifies violence and overstates its importance as a way to achieve national self-governance, and that he encourages populist rule by force. The rest of the book, however, illustrates precisely why these criticisms are misguided.
After ‘Concerning Violence,’ Fanon talks at length about the pitfalls of allowing widespread armed revolution to be left unguided by (what he suggests are) the right principles. For the people to be unified by violence alone, he argues, leads to political and social fracturing when the coloniser is overthrown. Unity in the face of a common enemy, if not transformed, he argues, allows political elites to “replace the foreigner” (p.158) and deflect political rage at an ethnic or socioeconomic group which they construct to be enemies. Similarly, he insists that the people must reject attempts by the political elite to use appeals to nationalism and commonality as a substitute for real policies which will advance the interests of the common people.
National independence, then, ought not be seen as an end in itself, but as a means to a better society for all. This is clearest in his writing that “if [nationalism] is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley” (p.204). It is therefore clear that Fanon does not think that national cohesion is brought about by violence alone. Rather, the violent response which colonial oppression necessitates begins the long process of constructing a national consciousness; the foundations for a truly successful postcolonial state. In reading beyond ‘Concerning Violence’ the true scope of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth can be understood and appreciated, and his writings on violence can be put firmly into context.
Fanon, Frantz, 1968. The wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press. [Especially chapters 3 and 4]
Gibson, Nigel, 2003. Fanon: The postcolonial imagination. Cambridge: Polity Press. [Especially chapter 8: Nationalism and a New Humanism.]
Malik, Kenan, 2012. CLR James, Franz Fanon and the meaning of liberation. Pandaemonium. Available at: https://kenanmalik.com/2012/04/16/clr-james-frantz-fanon-and-the-meaning-of-liberation/
Shivji, Issa, 2011. The struggle to convert nationalism to Pan-Africanism. Available at: https://www.pambazuka.org/pan-africanism/struggle-convert-nationalism-pan-africanism