Postcolonial prophet or advocate of ‘barbaric justice’? A new take on the life and times of influential revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon

Soldier. Psychiatrist. Revolutionary. Writer. More than half a century after his death, Frantz Fanon remains a powerful, polemical figure. Fanon wrote fiercely against racism and colonial violence at a time when Third Worldism – the idea of a united front between countries and peoples exploited by colonialism – seemed possible.

The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon – Adam Shatz (Head of Zeus)

Amid Algeria’s brutal war of independence from France (1954-62), Fanon wrote of the necessity of counter-violence in overthrowing colonial rule. In Algeria’s case, after 130 years of French indifference to the suffering of Algerians, he was right.

Fanon’s two best known books are Black Skin, White Masks, written when he was 27, and The Wretched of the Earth, finished six months before his death at 36 from leukaemia.

Black Skin, White Masks identified, analysed and denounced the impact racism had on the lives and minds of Black and colonised peoples in compelling, uncompromising terms.

The Wretched of the Earth is an anti-colonial manifesto, a case study of violence, and a history of the struggle for decolonisation written through the lens of the Algerian war for independence.

Cover of The Wretched of the Earth

The searing language of these books, along with Fanon’s embrace of violence as a means to an end, have helped forge his reputation either as prophet – The Wretched of the Earth is sometimes referred to as the bible of decolonisation – or as an advocate of “barbaric justice”, in the words of Fanon’s contemporary the French author and journalist Jean Daniel Bensaid.

Fanon’s work has informed political movements and academic disciplines, from Black liberation movements and African decolonisation to post-colonialism and critical race theory.

In The Rebel’s Clinic, Adam Shatz examines the life and times of Fanon. Shatz is the US editor of The London Review of Books and a contributor to the New Yorker. His extensive research and analysis makes The Rebel’s Clinic as much a comprehensive guide to an era, as a biography of man.

For Shatz, Fanon – the man and his work – are of increasing relevance and importance today. Indeed the headline of a New York Times essay he wrote earlier this year was: “The World Has Caught Up to Frantz Fanon”.

For Shatz, in “an age consumed with racism, police violence and the legacy of European colonialism in the Middle East and Africa”, Fanon is all too relevant.

Doctor and ‘chief theoretician’

Cover of The Rebel's Clinic

Born in the West Indian island of Martinique, a French department, Fanon left the island in March 1944 to fight in the second world war for a “free France”. He was 19. Believing in the values of the French republic – equality, brotherhood and liberty – Fanon was shocked at the racial hierarchy he encountered in the French army. Race determined a person’s rank, role and how they were treated,

Having grown up middle-class and “French educated” in Martinique, Fanon had anticipated being welcomed as a full French citizen, especially since he had chosen to fight. Wounded in the chest while fighting, he returned to Martinique briefly. He then went to France to study medicine, where he trained to become a psychiatrist.

Working in Lyon, Fanon encountered North African migrant workers whose “phantom pains” had been dismissed by French psychiatrists. Fanon saw the psychological impact of racism on these workers. This informed his practice as a psychiatrist, but also his thinking as a theorist and philosopher. In his work on disalienation, the processes by which patients could be healed from states of alienation and/or psychosis, Fanon would look to the role social factors played in mental health.

His residency at Saint Albans hospital under François Tosquelles, a reformist, Marxist/Freudian Catalan psychiatrist, was a crucial early experience.

In 1953, Fanon accepted a post as director of a clinic in Blida, Algeria. Here, he became fully appraised of the situation for Algerians living under French colonial rule. The founder of the Algiers psychiatry school Antoine Porot had described the Algerian Muslim as

hysterical, predisposed to criminality, and intellectually inferior: a primitive being driven by instinct and incapable of rational thought.

A group of medicos, including Fanon, and nurses at the Blida clinic.

The French colonial apparatus had created a radical, deliberate system of inequality. Yet in the Algerian people, Fanon saw an unrelenting resistance to assimilation to French values and culture. He admired this quality, joining the National Liberation Front (FLN). A resistance movement and the political branch of the Armed Liberation Front the FLN eventually rose to primacy in the war against France. It remains the ruling party in Algeria today.

While running the Blida clinic, Fanon was known for treating torturers, often French, in the morning, and their victims in the evening. Though his political loyalty lay with Algerians, his practice as a doctor was to treat whoever was in need: French or Algerian, torturer or tortured.

Eventually, however, Fanon was expelled from Algeria by the French for his revolutionary work. This included sedating battle-weary, resistance fighters for days at a time to help them return to the field.

Shatz describes Fanon as the FLN’s “roving ambassador” and “chief theoretician”. He spent the last years of his life running a clinic in Tunisia, taking part in military manoeuvres and political activities with the FLN and attending congresses in Africa and Europe, lobbying for the decolonisation of Africa.

The marble grave of Fanon.
Fanon’s grave in Aïn Kerma, Algeria. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Fanon was such an important figure in the struggle for decolonisation he was flown to Russia for medical treatment when first diagnosed with leukaemia. Later, with the assistance of the CIA, he went to the United States for a last ditch effort to save his life. The CIA’s role in trying to save Fanon was, according the Shatz, “a friendly overture” to the future government of Algeria. It was clear to the CIA, by then, that independence was inevitable.

Fanon died in the US in December 1961, just a few months before Algeria achieved independence from France.

According to his wishes, he was buried on Algerian soil. He spoke none of the languages of Algeria other than French; had lived in Algeria for a handful of years, yet saw this as no obstacle to national identity — his own as Algerian.

Homophobia and misogyny

Fanon’s works meld philosophy, psychiatry, lived experience and literature into a unique prose, oratorical in style. This is unsurprising given he dictated his early writing, firstly to his wife Josie Fanon, and later to a social worker at the clinic, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan.

Shatz wants to emphasise what is productive and relevant about Fanon’s work in our present moment. Fanon’s vision of nation-building, for instance, was one that went beyond identity politics.

A group of writers, including Fanon, sit around a conference table.

Shatz reassembles the parts of Fanon’s life often overshadowed by his reputation as an apologist for violence. He acknowledges what is difficult about Fanon. His admiration for him is “not unconditional”, and Fanon’s memory “is not well served by sanctification”. Indeed in 2001, reviewing an earlier biography of Fanon, Shatz observed,

Fanon’s apocalyptic aphorisms have not aged well […] While his faith in the therapeutic value of violence is now hard to fathom, much of what he wrote was eerily prescient.

Fanon is known for writing about the “cleansing” nature of violence in societies where colonialism wreaked existential and material destruction on colonised peoples. Revolutionary violence, he believed would recreate society, and “man”, from the ground up.

In his book, however, Shatz offers a different translation of Fanon’s French, substituting “cleansing” with the softer “dis-intoxicating”. Whether the latter word, with its suggestions of freeing from intoxication or enchantment, is any less morally loaded than “cleansing” is up for debate.

But Fanon’s prose and thinking are also characterised by homophobic and misogynistic language. In his case studies in The Wretched of the Earth, which include the rape of women, there is little to no consideration of the subjectivity of women. He deploys the idea of repressed homosexuality as an insult, and the language he uses to consider both the colonial and decolonised world focuses on men: both white and black. The gendering runs deep.

While there’s no doubt Fanon sought a new sense of nationhood, providing equality for all citizens, regardless of gender or race, this doesn’t mean it’s necessary or desirable to sidestep what is problematic in his work.

Rather it calls for the kind of reading Fanon himself was gifted at: a reading against the grain, as well as with it. Shatz certainly doesn’t ignore the problematic elements in Fanon’s work, but his emphasis remains on what was remarkable and productive about Fanon, rather than unpacking or navigating the difficult elements.

Still, Shatz’s framing of Fanon is sophisticated and erudite. He reconstructs an intellectual, political and cultural history of the mid-20th century. In the final chapters, he situates Fanon’s work amidst contemporary thinkers and movements, from Black Lives Matter to the struggles of the Palestinian people.

A photo of Adam Shatz.
Adam Shatz. Sarah Shatz

Very occasionally, Shatz teeters on the edge of trying to say more than is possible about Fanon given how little there is to recover about his private life. Fanon eschewed diaries. His wife Josie, who is largely absent from the biography, died in the late 1980s. (One of the few primary living resources Shatz had access to was Marie-Jeanne Manuellan to whom Fanon dictated The Wretched of The Earth.)

Shatz seems awkward when talking about Fanon’s affair with Elaine Klein, a Jewish woman and activist. Critic Jennifer Szalai, in her New York Times review of The Rebel’s Clinic, has criticised Shatz for not tackling the charge of Fanon’s violence towards his wife Josie, which came up in interviews conducted by scholar Félix Germain for his book Decolonising the Republic. In interviews with poet and journalist Paulin Joachim and Guadeloupean writer and academic Maryse Condé, Fanon was accused of being a violent man, of slapping his wife in public and private. And it’s possible to sense uncertainty in Shatz’s treatment of Fanon’s affairs. Shatz seems to suggest, but not declare outright, that the marriage was an open one, with Josie also having an affair.

Occasionally, Shatz leans into Fanon’s Martinican heritage and its place in his thought in ways that one feels Fanon himself might have resented, given his often disparaging remarks about Martinican culture.

Reading against the grain

In an earlier study of Fanon published in 2001, his biographer David Macey writes of Fanon’s notion of nationhood as based on a willing to be, rather than the place of one’s birth. In some respects, Macey allows Algeria’s story to both speak for and overshadow Fanon’s.

Shatz’s approach is to emphasise Fanon the man: the psychiatrist, the writer, the theorist, the anti-colonialist, drawing in Algeria’s history, alongside other influences on him. These included French existentialism, decolonisation, and Négritude, a literary movement whose chief proponents were the authors, poets and eventually politicians, Léopold Sédar Senghor (former president of Senegal) and Aimé Césaire (former president of the regional council of Martinique).

These two men influenced Fanon, however he diverged from the movement’s more essentialist ideas about black identity.

Both Shatz and Macey capture the extreme violence of both French and Algerian forces during the war of independence. Both sides planted bombs and massacred and tortured men and women, using techniques such as waterboarding and genital mutilation. The FLN severed limbs, lips and noses of villagers who broke bans on smoking – smoking is haram in Islam – as a way of demanding absolute loyalty to a future Arabic Islamic Algerian identity. The French guillotined captured Algerians, often without trial.

Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth knowing the Algerian revolutionaries he supported were matching the violence of the French, blow-for-blow.

If we read Fanon against the grain, not just to grapple with the limitations of his misogyny and homophobia, we can also see his life was one of complicity with the violence of the oppressed. Any act, from the severing of arms to the massacre of rivals, he argues, is justified if it results in overthrowing the oppressor. No matter the cost.

A sign featuring a quote from Frantz Fanon at a protest.

On the one hand, Fanon was a passionate advocate of the violence that would free colonised peoples from the oppressive degradation of the yoke of colonialism. On the other, he was in no way deluded about the psychic devastation caused by violence, whether experienced as perpetrator or victim.

This complicated nexus produced some of his most powerful insights into the social formation of the psyche. His was an almost devout belief in the necessity of striving towards a way of being that resisted traditionalism, particularities, and tribalisms.

He warned, too, of the prospect of a violent, class colonialism in which a “native elite” might take the place of their colonial masters. Shatz writes that Fanon anticipated the “Mobutus and the Mugabes” of the future, the “big men” who would “drape themselves in African garb”, yet rule by corruption and exploitation of power.

How we read Fanon – whether as literature, history, philosophy, psychiatric case study, or manifesto – will shape our views on his thoughts about violence. Good reading is itself a work in progress, a work requiring the kinds of exhaustive research and thinking Shatz brings to Fanon.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Michelle Hamadache, Macquarie University

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Michelle Hamadache does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.