Adam Shatz

The author on Frantz Fanon, revolution, violence, and the psychology of oppression

James Surowiecki

More than sixty years after his death, Frantz Fanon’s work—with its keen and biting insights into the psychology of racial and colonial oppression and its radical critique of essentialist conceptions of identity—continues to feel startlingly of the moment. And Fanon’s short life, during which he played so many different roles (psychiatrist, revolutionary propagandist, existentialist thinker, and theorist of decolonization), remains extraordinarily compelling.

In his new book, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, Adam Shatz has taken that subject and crafted a searching intellectual biography, one that captures Fanon in all of his contradictions and does a brilliant job of illuminating his writing and interrogating its various legacies. Shatz helps us understand why so many radicals and revolutionaries have looked to Fanon for inspiration, while not shying away from the troubling aspects of his work. He and I corresponded via email about The Rebel’s Clinic, Fanon, and the relevance of his work to the politics of today.

James Surowiecki, consulting editor

JAMES SUROWIECKI Why Fanon now? Without asking you to be reductionist, what is it about Fanon—his work, his life—that makes him still important more than sixty years after his death?

ADAM SHATZ Fanon lived in a world that has vanished, the world of the European colonial empires—and of the Cold War. But that world has cast a long shadow, and left us with a set of problems that he addressed with lucidity and power, including the vast divide between the rich world and the poor world, the persistence of racism and white nationalism, and the violence that plagues the lives of people in the formerly colonial world, whether the “slow” violence of poverty and exploitation, or the lethal violence of war. Today’s wretched of the earth are more likely to be slum dwellers or refugees than colonized subjects (the Palestinians aside), but they suffer from a similar predicament: they are refused entry into the category of the “human,” not only by the West but by the ruling classes of postcolonial states, the “national bourgeoisie” whom Fanon excoriated.

Fanon had an unusual attentiveness to “lived experience,” especially the corporeal and psychic dimensions of racial and colonial oppression. He understood that domination was something the oppressed experienced in their bodies and in their minds, and was not simply a matter of their being deprived of resources, or self-government. He was the twentieth century’s most piercing analyst of what I call the dream life of racism, for both its victims and its perpetrators, the desperate longings and often dark impulses it channels, and he captured this in prose that is at once analytic and visceral.

JS Fanon’s attentiveness to, and insight into, the psychic dimension of oppression (for both oppressor and oppressed) presumably derived at least in part from his training and work as a psychiatrist, something you chose to foreground in the title of your book, “The Rebel’s Clinic.” Why did you pick that title, and how does engaging with Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist complicate or deepen our understanding of him and his work?

AS I chose the title for two reasons. First, because Fanon’s thinking about racism and mental health, and about domination and resistance, took shape in his work with patients, including with North African laborers, most of them Algerian immigrants, in the French city of Lyon, and, later, with patients at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria and then Algerian soldiers at training camps in Morocco. Through his work as a doctor, he developed a political approach to psychiatry, one that, without entirely rejecting classical psychiatry or, for that matter, the psychoanalytic insights of Freud, Adler, and Lacan, emphasized the impact of political and social oppression, and of violence, on the psyches of colonized and colonizer. Even when Fanon began working in Tunisia as a spokesman for the FLN (the Algerian revolutionary movement), he continued to spend most of his time in his clinic, where he encountered a vast array of patients—Tunisians, Algerian refugees and soldiers, Europeans and Jews. Psychiatry was his passion, not just a day job, and he sometimes spoke of his desire to undergo analysis and become a psychoanalyst after Algerian independence. He brought his political commitments to his psychiatry, to be sure, but he also infused his political writings with psychiatric insights. It would be perverse to ignore the central place of psychiatry in his life, as if it were simply a way of making ends meet. For Fanon, political freedom depended on what he called “disalienation”—the overcoming of complexes that prevented the colonized from acting upon history as free subjects, and not merely the achievement of independence. Decolonization was a psychological, not merely a political, project.

Fanon had an unusual attentiveness to “lived experience,” especially the corporeal and psychic dimensions of racial and colonial oppression.

The second reason I chose my title is that, for me, the enduring vitality of Fanon’s work lies in his work as a rebellious doctor and writer: his experiments in “social therapy” for Muslim patients at the Blida-Joinville Hospital, where he eventually presided over a clandestine clinic for wounded fighters; the creation of a day clinic in Tunis that enabled the mentally ill to continue living at home; and, perhaps above all, his writing, where he gave expression not only to his great hopes for the Algerian independence movement but to his fears about the post-independence situation. My book revolves in large part around the tensions created by Fanon’s different roles: as healer on the one hand and advocate of violence on the other; as anticolonial rebel and obedient servant of a deeply authoritarian political movement. I wanted to honor what I see as the most inspiring aspect of Fanon’s all-too-short life.

JS As you say, Fanon played many roles in his relatively short life, roles that often seemed in tension with each other. (Beyond those you mentioned, he was an opponent of French colonialism who, in his practice, treated French soldiers, some of whom were torturers.) How should we make sense of the way he navigated those tensions?

AS There were many tensions between Fanon’s politics and his practice as a doctor—in fact, one could argue that there was nearly as much contradiction as synergy between these two roles. While Fanon surely wasn’t pleased to be treating torturers, he was a doctor, and as such he had taken an oath to treat anyone in his career. What’s more, he learned a great deal from his work with French soldiers, drawing insights into the “exhibitionist” nature of colonial violence, the colonizer’s need to flagrantly affirm who’s boss to the colonized.

There were, however, moments when the contradictions this work entailed clearly became unbearable for Fanon. In the last chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, on “colonial war and mental disorders,” he writes that he refused to continue treating a torturer who asked to be cured of his trauma so that he could return to torturing with a clean conscience: to have acceded to this man’s request would have been an intolerable form of complicity. And he eventually concluded that continuing to work as a psychiatrist in Algeria was itself to become complicit.

Fanon’s work with the FLN also involved him in contradictions with his psychiatric practice, since he was advocating an armed struggle that, however necessary, would result in injuries to body and mind that would haunt Algeria after independence. In the last chapter of Wretched, he writes not only of the lingering effects of colonial violence, but of the guilt and anxiety experienced by anticolonial fighters who’d carried out violent missions. As a member of the FLN, he was committed to a code of secrecy and silence that obliged him to remain discreet, or actively lie, about the crimes of his comrades. He resolved these contradictions by developing a hypothesis of collective self-reinvention through violence, in which armed struggle was recast as a kind of shock therapy, and by envisioning Algeria’s struggle, an Arab-Islamic independence movement deeply permeated by social conservatism, as a “revolution” that would altogether transform the traditional structures of Algerian society, including gender and relations between parents and children. He wasn’t alone in this vision—there were other FLN members who shared it—but no one else expressed it so ecstatically, so willfully, as if words themselves could create a new reality.

JS Why did Algeria become so important to Fanon? What was it about the Algerian people’s struggle for independence that he connected to so deeply?

AS Algeria’s struggle resonated with Fanon because it was a struggle, at its core, for self-determination, freedom, and social justice waged by a colonized people whom the French had attempted to turn into strangers in their own land. In the Algerians, Fanon saw a people who had succeeded in refusing the mask of assimilation to French ways, what he also called “the supremacy of white values”—in other words, they had succeeded where West Indians (of whom Fanon, a native of Martinique, was one) had failed. The Algerians had been subject to one of the most violent conquests of the nineteenth century, losing more than a third of their population between 1830, when the French invaded, and the 1870s. And yet they had somehow maintained their culture, their faith, and their will to resist.

JS Fanon’s hopes for what Algeria would become after independence—a multicultural, secular, radical democratic state—were quickly dashed, as the FLN crushed internal dissent and Algeria became a one-party Islamic state. Was he just naïve, or willfully blind, or do you think he understood what Algeria was likely to become, but believed the struggle for independence was worth fighting nonetheless?

AS I would hesitate to call postwar Algeria an “Islamic state,” although it is a country where citizenship has been linked to religious identity, and Islam has deeply permeated the practice of governance. In retrospect, it could not have been otherwise. As scholars such as Mohamed Harbi—a former FLN militant who knew Fanon, and later an imprisoned dissident and exiled historian—have argued, Algeria’s struggle was driven as much, or more, by a vision of an imagined restoration as of revolution. The French had violently sought to turn Algerians into French people, without ever offering them a path to true equality, since they had prevented Algerians from becoming citizens unless they renounced their status under Islamic law. It was the language of populist Islam, the language of jihad, not the language of socialism or class struggle, that led men and women in the countryside to embrace the FLN’s struggle.

Fanon, like other members of the FLN left, surely knew this but chose to look past it, because he believed fervently in independence for Algeria’s people and he wanted to promote a progressive current within the movement. Fanon convinced himself that the Algerian struggle embodied the ideals of all humanity and that their nationalism was a nationalism of the will, to which anyone could belong—including Fanon himself, a black atheist who did not even speak Arabic or Amazigh (Berber). A fantasy? Indeed, but it was also an enabling one, spurring him into action.

JS Fanon’s most famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) piece of writing is “On Violence,” the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth. As you write, “Fanon’s advocacy of violence can, at times, be alarming” pointing to the way his description of the Mau Maus’ killings of British settlers in Kenya as “work” calls to mind the Rwandan genocidaires, who also described their murders as “work.” And reading these passages at this moment inevitably calls to mind the massacres of Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7. From Fanon’s perspective, is there any basis for criticizing violence against civilians whom a revolutionary organization defines as “settlers” or “colonizers”?

AS I think there is, although Fanon wrote about violence not as a moralist (or “just war” theorist) but as a psychiatrist, and as someone possessed with a sense of the tragic, which is to say he believed that atrocities against European civilians were an inevitable part of anticolonial warfare in the early stages of the struggle. In both The Wretched of the Earth and in his earlier work A Dying Colonialism, Fanon defends the armed struggle. He understood that the French settlers had blocked all efforts at peaceful reform, and he was not, in any case, a pacifist. But he also writes, in A Dying Colonialism, that (I’m paraphrasing) the FLN condemns, with a heavy heart, Algerian fighters who display the “almost physiological brutality that centuries of oppression nourish and gives rise to.”

Would he have condemned specific cases of FLN atrocities? It’s highly unlikely—he was a spokesman for the movement, and meanwhile France was carrying out atrocities on a much vaster scale: driving more than two million Algerian peasants into “resettlement camps,” killing, torturing and maiming hundreds of thousands of others. More than three thousand Algerians were “disappeared” in a single year during the Battle of Algiers. But Fanon believed that the Algerian struggle would have to overcome what he called, in The Wretched of the Earth, the “primitive Manicheanism” of the colonial system, based on the settler/native divide. He emphasized that a politics of hatred, vengeance, and “anti-racist racism”—a phrase he borrowed from Sartre—could not nurture a liberation struggle. The identities of “settler” and “native” were not fixed, essential identities, Fanon believed; they were identities created by colonialism itself, and would disappear with colonialism.

Again, Fanon was not alone in this conviction—many Algerians shared it. But there were also many Algerians who wanted to drive out all the French, for good. The French living in Algeria (the so-called pieds noirs) made this project much likelier because they refused, on the whole, to relinquish their privileges, supporting the army and, eventually, the terrorists of the OAS (Secret Army Organization), who killed thousands of Algerians in the last year of the war—extrajudicial killings that exceeded those of the FLN. Thanks to settler violence, far more than FLN violence, it became impossible for the members of the European community to remain in the country after independence.

JS Perhaps the most famous sentence in that first chapter is the one where Fanon describes revolutionary violence as a “cleansing force.” At least that’s how that phrase was translated in the Grove Press edition that most English-speaking readers of Fanon have read. You argue instead that what Fanon actually wrote was that violence was “disintoxicating.” What is the difference, and how, if at all, does the more accurate translation change our understanding of Fanon’s view of violence?

AS Fanon could have described violence as a “force purificatrice,” a purifying or cleansing force. But he did not. He wrote, “la violence désintoxique,” which I think is somewhat different. His point isn’t that violence is purifying or still less redemptive, so much as that it liberates the colonized, at least for a moment, from the stupor into which colonialism has consigned them. When the colonized take up arms, in Fanon’s view, they experience a rush, a taste of power, of power in action and power in numbers and power in destructive force: they’re fighting back, no longer intoxicated, no longer rendered helpless by oppression.

There were many tensions between Fanon’s politics and his practice as a doctor.

Many readers are disturbed by this, and, to be sure, it’s disturbing to think that someone could experience such feelings while inflicting violence. But this idea, I think, is a sober, psychological intuition—while Fanon was certainly an advocate of violence, in this chapter he is giving an account of how the oppressed are transformed, internally, in the act of taking up arms against their oppressors. And we find similar intuitions in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel Fanon cited, and indeed in the writings of Jean Améry, a Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter who admired Fanon’s writing and declared that for the oppressed, violence is an affirmation of humanity. Now, I am not persuaded that Fanon would have celebrated Hamas’s slaughter of rave-goers on October 7, but I don’t think he would have found it difficult to understand how such violence—of, in fact, “an almost physiological brutality”—exploded.

JS The end of your book is a wonderful discussion of Fanon’s legacy and the way in which he has been taken up by myriad different groups and movements, often in ways that distort or omit important parts of his thinking. This is, in some sense, inevitable: all texts are subject to being misappropriated. But is there something about Fanon’s work that especially lends itself to the kind of cherry-picking analysis that so many people have done with his work? In other words, was he trying to have it both ways: using utopian or over-the-top rhetoric in order to grab readers’ attention, and only then complicating the stark picture that he initially drew?

AS In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon was writing a work that he intended to be a manifesto, propaganda for the revolution, not a work of political philosophy. He wanted to mobilize readers, to excite and inspire them, and the book is as much declaimed as written. One can imagine him, like his mentor Aimé Césaire in his classes in Fort-de-France, standing on a chair, reciting the book. And his over-the-top rhetoric, as you put it, was effective: in the 1960s and ’70s, Fanon was read in every revolutionary training camp in what he called the Third World.

Yes, he got carried away in his rhetoric. But he was too brilliant, too creative, and finally too perceptive and subtle to write a mere tract. So there is a vulgar Fanon and a sophisticated Fanon fighting for mastery within the Fanon text, and reaching, I think, a dead heat. Those who prefer vulgar Fanonism to a more sophisticated iteration are perfectly free to make that choice, and in one sense, it is a justifiably Fanonian choice, the choice of action. Like Marx, who inspired many schools of Marxism, some of them quite vulgar, some of them destructive of the dreams of emancipation that he espoused, Fanon lends himself to many and contradictory readings. Fanon’s body of work is certainly forceful, but it is also unsettled, and unsettling, and it’s not my purpose to put forward a single reading of his work as the legitimate one. His future as a thinker lies in his specters.

JS One of the things that makes Fanon’s work intriguing in this historical moment is his rejection of conventional ideas of identity, and in particular of racial essentialism, even as he had no time for facile, color-blind universalism. Both in his life—as a black man from Martinique whose deepest connection seems to have been with Arabs and Berbers in Algeria—and in his writing, he pointed toward the need for oppressed peoples to move away from racial consciousness in favor, as you put of it, “more international and inclusive forms of attachment.” (You can see Fanon the existentialist in this: identity is something to be achieved, rather than something fixed.) That’s a vision that feels at odds with much of contemporary left-wing politics, which puts a great deal of emphasis on identity and situatedness. How would Fanon make sense of the left today?

AS I think he would declare a plague on all houses—a plague on identitarian essentialism, a plague on “colorblindness” that serves as a cover for perpetuating injustices caused by racial oppression, a plague on a “pure” class politics that ignores what Althusser might have called the “relative autonomy” of racism. Fanon would have been troubled by the absence of a horizon beyond neoliberal capitalism and autocratic forms of nationalism—and perplexed, perhaps, by the influence of Afropessimist and decolonial schools of thought, both of which substitute ontology for history, treating the black and colonized subject as an eternal victim (a tendency that they share with Zionism, which imagines Jews outside the Jewish state as living in some hellish exile where 1939 is always just around the corner). “I am not the slave of the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors,” Fanon declared in his first book. “I am my own foundation.” Can you imagine anyone writing those lines today? But for all his determinism, Fanon remained a defiant optimist. He believed in new departures, in what he called the “leap of invention.” Without that leap, he believed, we would never achieve freedom. That this aspect of Fanon’s work is so often forgotten is a measure of what separates his time from ours.

James Surowiecki is a consulting editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
January 30, 2024


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