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Ian H. Birchall

Frantz Fanon

(July 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 60, July 1973, p. 25.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study
Irene L. Gendzier
Wildwood House, £1.75

‘We have seen military doctors, called to the bedside of an Algerian soldier wounded in combat, refuse to treat him. The official pretext was that there was no longer a chance to save the wounded man. After the soldier had died, the doctor would admit that this solution had appeared to him preferable to a stay in prison where it would have been necessary to feed him while awaiting execution. The Algerians of the region of Blida know a certain hospital director who would kick the bleeding chests of the war wounded while lying in the corridor of his establishment.’

This account by Frantz Fanon of his experiences at the Blida hospital in Algeria explains better than anything else in Gendzier’s book why this young West Indian psychiatrist abandoned medicine for politics and joined the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Violence lies at the very heart of imperialism, and it was the raw violence of the French war against the Algerian people that drew together the threads of Fanon’s thought.

The interest of Gendzier’s book is that it is basically an intellectual biography, showing how Fanon took his ideas from a number of sources in order to weld together a critique of the colonial situation. It is to be hoped this book marks the end of Fanon as a trendy cult figure and opens the possibility of studying him as a significant figure whose thought was still in formation at the time of his early death. Gendzier traces the emergence of Fanon’s ideas, in particular looking in detail at the influence of Sartre. In his book Anti-Semite and Jew Sartre had attempted to analyse the psychology of the Anti-Semite: ‘He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world – of everything except the Jews ... Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man.’ (The point is made without the obscure jargon into which Sartre often lapses in his short story Childhood of a Leader.)

From this starting point Fanon developed some important insights into the ideological aspects of racialism and black consciousness: ‘It is the white man who creates the Negro. But it is the Negro who creates negritude.’ But while Fanon’s strength is in his concern with consciousness, his weakness derives from his tendency to see ideas out of a material context.

Hence his approach to the French Left – a moral criticism for failing to pull their weight, rather than an attempt to demonstrate the common interests of French workers and Algerian peasants. Hence his grotesque description of the colonial proletariat as ‘pampered’. Hence the flight into mysticism that sees violence as a ‘cleansing force’.

In an interesting final chapter Gendzier discusses Fanon’s influence in independent Algeria, and quotes an Algerian official who argues it is necessary to ‘deFanonize Algeria’. Fanon’s independent and original thought is too much for the men who now rule Algeria; but it is unlikely to be the main inspiration for those who will overthrow them.

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Last updated: 23.9.2013