Wretched of the Earth, The
by Frantz Fanon
I feel fortunate to have read Camus’ The Rebel right before starting this, and then taking a break in the middle to re-read Galeano’s seminal Open Veins of Latin America. The three books use completely different methods to analyze essentially the same phenomenon: the search for freedom and autonomy in the face of systematic oppression.
Camus mines this territory the deepest from his philosophical perspective. So deep, in fact, that many times he lost me completely. But his analysis was also the most painstaking and considered in dissecting precisely what it means to rebel, and the pitfalls of which one must always beware in doing so.
Galeano was in some ways at the opposite end of the spectrum, taking a completely macro- approach in his economic analysis of the ways that imperio-capitalist powers subjugate entire nations and continents. He touched upon the effect on the individual, but only insofar as that individual makes up a downtrodden group.
I see Fanon’s work as a middle ground between these two, though aligned more with Camus than with Galeano. It is more generalized in its scope than Camus, yet much more personal and humanistic than Galeano. Whereas Galeano limits his discussion to the problems of (neo-)colonialism, Fanon wants to examine what happens when the natives try to solve this problem through rebellion. Fanon addresses the principal ideas in each of the other books but understandably cannot devote his energies to a full dissection (indeed, Galeano’s book hadn’t even been written when “Wretched” was published).
But Fanon surely must have been aware of “The Rebel” during the writing of this book. And having just read Camus, who explains in convincing detail the dangers of unmitigated violence, it was jarring to see very early that Fanon apparently disagrees:
You do not turn any society, however primitive it may be upside down with such a program (of violence) if you have not decided from the very beginning, that is to say from the actual formation of that program, to overcome all the obstacles that you will come across in so doing. The native who decides to put the program into practice, and to become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence. 37
Camus says, on the other hand, that permitting absolute violence leads inevitably to indiscriminate murder and eventually to terror (once the rebellion succeeds and must suppress the opposition). After dozens of pages of discussion, he arrives at the conclusion that the only acceptable murder is one for which the rebel is ready to sacrifice his own life. It is only through the mutual sacrifice of life on both sides of the struggle that a new ideal can be created.
So it is understandable that, coming from this careful, lengthy (and often tedious) analysis, I was leery of Fanon’s snap proclamation that more resembled dogma than logical argument. I recognized in this passage, and thus almost from the very beginning of the book, that there was a definite lack of consideration on Fanon’s part, which is to say a lack of the subtle nuance that could be vital to such a discussion. Indeed, Fanon himself seems to contradict this advocacy of total violence when at the end of the book he discusses the case of a man with a severe psychological disorder resulting from the indiscriminate killing of his supposed enemies.
It would be quibbling, however, to condemn the book just for this lack of insight. I know of few thinkers with the mental acuity and tenacity to delve to the depths that Camus mines. Fanon’s strength lies in his generalizations, in his description of the “settler v. native” situation, a description which reads almost like a folk tale, something that is an indisputable fact, something that has always been and always will be. It’s a mesmerizing quality that he displays at his best, writing matter-of-factly in an inevitable, marching rhythm. In fact it reads in many places like a church sermon, and I often imagined the words spoken by someone with the eloquent rhythm of a black preacher (MLK would be the most obvious choice, coming from my U.S. perspective).
When it was less engaging it read like a lecture, with many large words strung together in long sentences that were difficult to follow. At these times I saw that the hypnotic quality of his prose often served to obscure the fact that his message consisted largely of generalities and occasional platitudes. It was also repetitive (like Galeano), and could have benefited from more frequent section breaks.
But here I am, a whole essay into my review, and I’ve barely even addressed the content of the book, which in my opinion is quite strong. Fanon analyzes — again, in sometimes frustratingly general terms — the cause of rebellion, its formation, the infighting that might occur between the leaders of the rebellion and the masses, and the tendency of the leadership to compromise the rebellion in order to please the colonizer. Post-rebellion, he discusses the common pitfalls of the new national leadership, which usually tends to want to replace the colonial bourgeosie with a national one. This national bourgeosie, however, lacking capital, will only stifle the development of a healthy national economy. They will be more focused on gaining wealth for themselves and in doing so will mortgage the future of the national economy to the former colonizer, leading to neo-colonialism and no further.
I love what Fanon says (similarly to Galeano) about the creation of wealth and the resulting debt and concessions between the former colonizer and the newly independent nation. I will quote the following passage (from p. 102-3) at length because it explains this so powerfully:
The wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too. . . For in a very concrete way Europe has stuffed herself inordinately with the gold and raw materials of the colonial countries: Latin America, China and Africa. From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. . . So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: “It’s a just reparation which will be paid to us.” Nor will we acquiesce in the help for underdeveloped countries being a program of “sisters of charity.” This help should be the ratification of a double realization: the realization by the colonized peoples that it is their due, and the realization by the capitalist powers that in fact they must pay. For if, through lack of intelligence (we won’t speak of lack of gratitude) the capitalist countries refuse to pay, then the relentless dialectic of their own system will smother them. . . (my emphasis in boldface)
Later, on pp. 142-3, he continues:
The native must realize that colonialism never gives anything away for nothing. Whatever the native may gain through political or armed struggle is not the result of the kindliness or good will of the settler; it simply shows that he cannot put off granting concessions any longer. Moreover, the native ought to realize that it is not colonialism that grants such concessions, but he himself that extorts them. When the British government decides to bestow a few more seats in the National Assembly of Kenya upon the African population, it needs plenty of effrontery or else a complete ignorance of facts to maintain that the British government has made a concession. Is it not obvious that it is the Kenyan people who have made the concession? The colonized peoples, the peoples who have been robbed, must lose the habits of mind which have characterized them up to now. If need be the native can accept a compromise with colonialism, but never a surrender of principle.
I love how he frames this. Reparations (a discussion relevant to the U.S.) should not be considered as trying to make the poor downtrodden’s life easier. They should be, rather, a conscious recognition that our wealth is a direct result of the exploitation of that downtrodden person.
This ability to allow his reader to see from the perspective of the native is one of the great strengths of the book. The aforementioned analyses of the infighting among the rebellion and the post-rebellion bourgeosie are also highlights. I’ve already listed what I think the flaws in the book are. There’s also an unfortunate exclusion of females throughout much of the discussion that undoubtedly stems from the time period in which it was written. The last two sections “On National Culture” and “Mental Disorders” don’t mesh very well with the rest of the book, although the “Mental Disorders” section, an anthology of case studies from Fanon’s actual psychiatric practice in Algeria, is very informative and interesting.
Overall, this is an important book, probably at least as important as “Open Veins.” I would recommend the two together, especially since they talk about two different continents (though Galeano uses more specific detail than Fanon). I would only recommend “The Rebel” for philosophy students or those seriously interested in a theoretical and metaphysical discussion of the rebel’s psychology.