Issue #27 December 2019

Frantz Fanon: Anticolonial Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory

El Anatsui — “Man’s Cloth” — (1998–2001)

In a recorded conversation from 1972, Foucault and Deleuze talk about being “in the process of experiencing a new relationship between theory and practice” (Foucault/Deleuze, 205), one that had begun “in the most recent upheaval” (ibid., 207). They are here referring to the events of May 68. Deleuze continues: “At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence, at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms” (ibid.). In either case, be it that theory, in the form of political and philosophical analysis, precedes practice, or that it is the result of political struggle, they are understood as distinct entities forming a hierarchical relationship. He adds that while previously, “their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalization,” it is now “far more partial and fragmentary” (ibid.). One might be tempted to see here, especially in the last statement, an expression of what came to be known as postmodernism — the change from a concept of an all-encompassing knowledge to a multiplicity of ‘knowledges’ and all its madness. But it is clear that this shift is not to be understood as an abstract sliding into so-called post-truth, but as a concrete political realisation. Foucault notes:

It is for that reason that the intellectual’s role changes profoundly. It is no longer about standing on the forefront of the people with his prefabricated theory in hand, but “to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘discourse’” (ibid., 208). The intellectual’s integration into the grid, for example through the university or the media, and the potentiality of him himself becoming a representative of the power structures, leads to a much more precarious position. As he gains insight into “the indignity of speaking for others” (ibid., Deleuze, 209), he can no longer position himself as a representative of the people.

Foucault and Deleuze are very astute in their observation and its consequences, but they are wrong, and slightly narcissistic, in ascribing it to the political events of 1968, in which they themselves have participated. The profound shift in the relationship between theory and practice, its abandonment of universal totalisations, goes back to the revolutionary anticolonial struggle. May 68 happened 6 years after the Algerian War of Independence had ended, in a time where France was still struggling to establish its postcolonial order. One year earlier, in 1961, Frantz Fanon’s was published, a few days after the author’s death. This book, which Fanon wrote as an active participant of the Algerian War, anticipates and realises, as a ‘theory’ on the anticolonial struggle, the shift that Deleuze and Foucault will talk about 11 years later.

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That the relation between theory of practice was of primary importance for the thinkers of the African anticolonial struggles becomes clear from a quick look at the biographies of its most famous representatives, like Césaire, Senghor, Cabral, and, of course, Frantz Fanon. But it is not this activism that was the ‘novelty’ of anticolonial thinkers, as one might invoke, for example, Rosa Luxemburg, or others who wrote philosophical or political analyses. To understand their novelty, we have to look not at their biographies, but at their thoughts. More specifically, what Fanon and other anticolonial thinkers have realised, is that the analysis of the colonial situation necessitated a completely new theoretical frame, which included a rethinking of the relationship between theory and practice. As the dominant reference for critical analysis of a political and economic situation was Marxism, this meant a break with this tradition, including the Marxist notion of the revolutionary intellectual. This rupture was not only due to the fact that the Marxist analysis was deemed inappropriate for the analysis of the economic situation of the colony, which is, as we’ll see, structurally very different from the conditions of European capitalism. More radically, it is an abandonment of Western historiography, within which Africa is considered to be ‘lagging behind’ Europe, so that it needs to ‘catch up’ in the processes of industrialisation and ‘civilisation’. The rupture with the Marxist tradition, whose linear historiography remains within “Eurocentric assimilationism” (Armah, 50), was in that sense also the call for the colonies to abandon the imitation of the West and to find its own way: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe and let us tense our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us endeavor to invent a man in full, something which Europe has been incapable of achieving” (Fanon, 326).

The Marxist-Leninist framework

The prime example of the revolutionary theorist within the Marxist tradition of thought is, of course, Lenin. We can’t forget that it was neither Lenin, nor the Bolsheviks who brought Marxist thought to Russia, and neither was it obvious from the start that the Russian revolution was to occur under Marx’s banner. As Berdyaev describes in , the atmosphere of apocalypse and revolution, the looming end of the tsarist era, was present in the Russian intelligentsia decades before October 1917. In attempts to predict, and, of course, influence, the coming revolution, many theoretical and practical attempts had been made. Among the candidates, Marxism was barely the first choice, as its theory of historical materialism posits that a communist revolution can only happen in a highly industrial country — Marx himself only saw the possibility for it in Britain and maybe Germany. As tsarist Russia was barely industrialised, thereby only having a small and weak proletariat, Marxist theory could absolutely not be applied to the political reality. The possibility of a proletarian revolution in Russia was therefore highly questioned in the intellectual discourse. It was the Mensheviks who adhered closer to Marx’s theory by positing that Russia first had to industrialise, develop a bourgeoisie as much as a proletariat, before, due to historic necessity, the communist revolution could occur. The downside of this was, evidently, that it would thereby be postponed by decades, if not centuries. Lenin’s theoretical readjustment of Marxism to what would later be known as Marxism-Leninism has in that sense to be read as a fundamental shift in the relation between theory and practice.

Lenin’s reinterpretation of Marxism, especially in view of the central role of the vanguard party, gives us a specific notion of how the relation between theory and practice was understood within this conceptual framework. As much as it was Lenin who emphasised the importance of the revolutionary party, the ‘brains of the operation’, this notion was a consequence of Marxist theory. To understand that aspect, we need to have a quick look at Marx’s anthropology and his theory of labour.

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As Berdyaev notes, there are two sides to Marx’s thought: On the one hand, it is understood as a scientific theory, with a necessary historical development (historical materialism) and in that sense it is an empirical and normative-free theory. The proletariat will free itself out of pure historical necessity. But Berdyaev reminds us that Marx is also an heir of German idealism; and in that sense, Marxist theory “is also a teaching of deliverance, of the messianic vocation of the proletariat, of the ideal society to come, in which humankind no longer depends on economy, of the power and victory of man over the irrational powers of nature and society” (Berdyaev, 81); this emancipatory gesture is what makes Marxism humanistic. And it is here where Marx’s anthropology lies as well: “the active subject that will free humankind of slavery and that will create a better life is the proletariat” (ibid.). The notion of the active subject is exactly that which Marx inherits from the Idealists. But the reason why it is exactly the proletariat that is given this messianic power is due to a new linkage between productivity and human value.

The novelty in Marx is that with him-

In other words, this new anthropology is marked by a profound ambivalence: On the one hand, the capacity for productive labour would, as an essential component of the active subject, be distributed on egalitarian grounds. On the other hand, especially due to the inherently industrial character of the Marxist variant of communism, it also led to a quantitative differentiation of skill, which was also, in a certain way, normative. The skilled worker could operate more complex machinery, and therefore would take a more important role. This differentiation not only becomes central in light of the structure of the communism to come, but also in light of the revolution that realises it. The leading force of the revolution, is, within the Marxist framework, class-consciousness, which is not a given, but has to be induced — and here, the intelligentsia takes its vanguard position, for it is them, with an even higher cognitive skill, that can ‘read the signs’, analyse the economic dynamics, and uncover the sources and mechanisms of the workers’ exploitation.

It is for that reason that self-awareness — once again we’ll recognise Hegel’s and Fichte’s influence — plays a central political role in Marxism. It is theory that induces self-consciousness and ‘awakens’ the masses who are blind to their own exploitation; it is only through becoming self-aware that the masses gain political consciousness. In this leading role of theory, we can see an important aspect of Marxist thought: he does not believe in the people. Only the proletarian can bring the revolution “because the nature of the proletarian work process supposedly refines out of their systems such archaic feelings and beliefs as egotism, nationalism and theism, while rationalizing their thinking processes and habits, making them truly modern human beings” (Armah, 43). It is for that reason that Marx sees the possibility of communism only in a highly industrialised society. At the same time, Marx’s philosophy becomes Eurocentric. But-

In short, it is only the process of industrialisation, and therefore of a technological and ‘civilising’ process, that will create the people that will be able to bring forth the communist revolution. And as it was Britain that was at the forefront of this development, Marx not only predicted the revolution to first happen there, but also implicitly assumed that whichever nation wanted to follow suit, had to imitate the historical trajectory of this very country.

The flip-side to the appraisal of the proletariat was that “Marx and Engels were convinced that peasants were stupid” (ibid., 43) — “The root of the problem is that peasants as a class, and peasant-based civilizations in their generality, have worldviews distinctly different from those of industrially-based civilizations” (ibid., 44). We can also remember that in the Manifesto, they called the lumpenproletariat “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society” (Marx/Engels, 20).

In other words: Productive labour is industrial labour, so the humans that produce value are the industrialised and ‘civilised’ people that have been brought to maturity through their technological work and to self-awareness through the vanguard intelligentsia (so even the ‘civilised’ proletarian first needs to be ‘awoken’ and ‘freed’ by the intellectual avant-garde). The analysis of the relations of production was therefore the most important aspect to help bring forth the revolution. Such an active role of theory, which completely blacks out the deterministic aspects of Marxism, was further reinforced by Lenin, for whom the revolution is brought forth by the vanguard party, which also decides when the people are ‘ripe’ for the revolution.

On a side note: The two critics of Marxism that I have cited here, Sylvia Wynter and Ayi Kwei Armah, have formulated their critiques only two years apart, in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Yet, they’re coming from different discourses, namely feminism and postcolonialism. That the spectre of Marx still had to be exorcised from their discourses, should once again remind us that the history of thought is neither a linear nor a dialectic affair.

El Anatsui — “Nukae 1” — (2006)

Fanon and the colonial situation

The anticolonial struggle is as old as the colonies themselves, and so are the attempts to find a conceptual framework that could help the people get rid of the intruders. The inherent role of theory is therefore not to interpret the world, but to change it. The advantage of Marxism was that it not only offered the tools for economic analysis, but also sketched out a pathway towards revolution. Communism, with its egalitarian principles, obviously contrasted starkly against the violent exploitation of the autochthonous peoples by capitalist countries; and as the inherent connection of capitalism and imperialism has long been noticed by Marxist theorists, the anticolonial struggle could not avoid being anticapitalistic. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why anticolonial theories are kept under wraps nowadays.

One of the primary questions for Fanon and for other theorists of the anticolonial struggle was, then, if the Marxist framework was appropriate for an analysis of the colonial situation and if it offered the appropriate instruments to lead the people to freedom. This question was very much discussed, already in the 40’s, in anticolonial journals like or in , founded by W.E.B. DuBois, and where political questions from an African-American perspective were discussed. Fanon’s references to Marx are therefore not exceptional.

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As we can see, Fanon notes two differences to the Marxist framework: First of all, there is a difference in legitimation. While, of course, the 19th and the 20th centuries were ripe with theories of racial superiority, the factual basis of the control over the colonies was always violence. As much as the reduction “to the state of the animal,” and the use of “zoological terms” has affected the psyche of the colonised, “they know they are not animals. And at the very moment when they discover their humanity, they begin to sharpen their weapons to secure its victory” (ibid., 7f.). The second difference is that within industrial capitalism, it is a class that is exploited by another class, one part of the population by the other, while in the colony, the whole population is exploited, oppressed, and enslaved by an external force.

Of course, it is well-known that colonisation doesn’t work without building alliances with local elites, with preferential treatments for chosen ethnic groups, and other strategies of fragmentation. But as the actual exploiter remains on the outside, there can be no class dynamic in the strict sense; it rather amounts to tribalisms that express the constant frustration of the people. “The colonial world is a Manichaean world,” in which the colonised is turned “into a kind of quintessence of evil” (ibid., 6). Due to this absolute segregation built on racist grounds, even the elite, in as far as it can claim to differentiate itself from the masses, is barred from assimilation.

Let us return to the first aspect that we’ve noted above, violence, as it is central for Fanon’s analysis and titles the first chapter of . As the history of the colonies, as much as the history of slavery, shows, attempts at pacification never succeed: Neither the slave nor the colonised have failed to seize any opportunity to rebel, to organise and to fight against the aggressors. Direct violence therefore remains the primary method of upholding order. As effective as this method is, its result is not pacification, but quite the contrary, that the colonised is under constant “muscular tension” (ibid., 17), which, during ‘stable’ colonial times is expressed in tribal aggressions, criminality, or deviated to the fatalism of religion, which once again serves as the ‘opiate of the masses’ (ref. ibid., 18). Still, due to the open nature of colonial violence, the people are also constantly aware of the source of their misery. In that sense, they are inherently politicised, which expresses itself daily in the act of non-cooperation. The latter was racially reinterpreted as the ‘natural laziness’ of Africans or Arabs —meanwhile, “the colonized’s indolence is a conscious way of sabotaging the colonial machine” (ibid., 220).

One can say for that reason that for minorities, for suppressed people in general, there is no difference between the private and the public: The decision to work hard or not is a political decision, to adhere to tradition is an act of defiance, while blindly accepting ‘modernisation’ is a betrayal of the people. The choice of clothing, of language, of consumer items, and the newspaper one reads — they all become a function of struggle or of submission. In short, the revolution only awaits its opportunity, and will happen on its own once the circumstances allow it. That’s why the people don’t need theory to be awoken; they are permanently ready, and it is with them that the struggle will begin. The seemingly stable situation of the colony is in fact a state of permanent pre-revolution.

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But, as we have noted, not everyone is suppressed in the same way. Nestled in the relative comfort of the city, the colonised intellectual comes into contact with “the colonialist bourgeoisie,” which, “by way of its academics, had implanted in the minds of the colonized that the essential values — meaning Western values — remain eternal despite all errors attributable to man” (ibid., 11). By accepting his own culture’s inferiority, the intellectual starts not only imitating European forms of cultural production and the bourgeois ideals that it expresses, but also produces his work “exclusively with the oppressor in mind” (ibid., 173), as he needs to prove to him that he is not as inferior as his confrères. In this distantiation, which mimics bourgeois individualism, he becomes blind to the pleas and to the misery of the people. As he accepts the coloniser’s racist ideas, he also accepts the necessity of the colonial situation, which ‘helps’ the uncivilised to at least somehow enter the realm of reason. At best, he joins the national party and becomes a proponent of reform to at least slightly ameliorate the misery of the colonised nation (cf. ibid. 21). In short, in the colonial situation, it is the intellectual who is affected by a profound blindness, which makes him inherently inept to bring forth the liberation of the people. The intellectual isn’t a leader, he ‘can’t read the signs’; .

In regard to the Marxist-Leninist conception, where it is the vanguard party that is to induce class consciousness, and thereby revolutionary intention to the people, the colonial situation is marked by a clear inversion. As power expresses itself through violence and not (only) exploitation, the people can’t help but be conscious and at least rudimentarily political. There is no need to ‘decipher the signs’. This is not to say that the European workers of the 19th century, who had to live and work in horrible conditions, weren’t aware of their condition. The history of the self-organisation of workers speaks for itself. But the Marxist-Leninist conceptual frame tends to underestimate such spontaneous organisations and deems them unable to realise the revolution. Either way, the contrast is evident in the colonial situation: The revolution, when it starts, starts with the people, and the intellectual actually arrives ‘late for the party’. If he is sympathetic to revolution, he constantly awaits the moment where the people are ‘ripe’ for revolution, or when a revolution becomes feasible (his only way out of this impasse is, as we’ll see, if he is forced to flee from the city and to hide within the peasantry). But as, rationally speaking, the coloniser, with his weapons and technologically advanced army, will remain ‘objectively’ superior, this moment will never come. But the people are not awaiting the intellectual’s permissions. Permanently alert and under tension, they are but waiting for the situation to gradually change until open rebellion becomes not ‘realistically feasible’, but objectively necessary:

The question of theory hereby becomes more poignant: If the people are aware and revolutionary by default, what use do they have for analysis?

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It is true, the revolution is born out of spontaneity, but as the title of the second chapter —— indicates, it is marked by an inherent ambivalence. What is it that the people want? “They are governed by a simple doctrine: The nation must be made to exist. There is no program, no discourse, there are no resolutions, no factions. The problem is clear-cut: The foreigners must leave. Let us build a common front against the oppressor and let us reinforce it with armed struggle” (ibid., 83). As the colonial situation is marked by a Manichean division, the first step of opposition has a dialectical clarity. The enemy is immediately recognised. The antidote against colonial violence is just as obvious: the violence of the revolution. But the latter is of a completely different fabric than the former. While the violence of the coloniser follows a politics of fragmentation, and has as its only goal to suppress, the alignment of the people’s violence to one purpose and to one enemy has a unifying and liberating effect: “In a state of genuine collective ecstasy rival families decide to wipe the slate clean and forget the past. Reconciliations abound. Deep-buried, traditional hatreds are dug up, the better to root them out. Faith in the nation furthers political consciousness. National unity begins with the unity of the group, the settling of old scores, and the elimination once and for all of any resentment” (ibid.).

We have now talked about ‘the people’ like some abstract entity. A closer look at the colony’s economic structure will offer us insight, who exactly they are. As Fanon notes, “colonial domination [gives] preferential treatment to certain regions. […] Colonialism almost never exploits the entire country. It is content with extracting natural resources and exporting them to the metropolitan industries thereby enabling a specific sector to grow relatively wealthy, while the rest of the colony continues, or rather sinks, into underdevelopment and poverty” (ibid., 106). Colonies are therefore marked by a strong divide between the rural and the urban, whereas the former, exploited for monocultures, is barely diversified and industrialised, so that “the rural masses still live in a feudal state whose overbearingly medieval structure is nurtured by the colonial administrators and army” (ibid., 65). It is for that reason that the truly revolutionary parts of the population are the peasantry and the lumpen-proletariat, those who migrate to the city trying to evade the rural misery, but who get stuck in the slums, jobless and poor. They are the ones who have “nothing to lose” (ibid., 23). The revolution therefore originates in the rural ‘masses’.

It is this situation that the militant intellectual, who refuses both assimilation and reformism, is confronted with. With a relatively complacent elite and a reactionary national party, he fails to initiate a revolutionary movement in the city, and, hunted by the police, he is finally forced to leave it and hide with the people (ibid. 28f.). But this exile is, so to speak, the best that could happen to him, for it is here that he establishes contact with the people. This aspect is fundamental for Fanon, as it has several consequences. First of all, the exiled militant rids himself of “all the Mediterranean values, the triumph of the individual, of enlightenment and Beauty” that “turn into pale, lifeless trinkets. All those discourses appear a jumble of dead words. Those values which seemed to ennoble the soul prove worthless because they have nothing in common with the real-life struggle in which the people are engaged” (ibid., 11). Second, he hears “the true voice of the country” and sees “the great and infinite misery of the people” (ibid., 79). These militants

And last, but most importantly, they understand that it is not them who are to lead the people, and that they have to “let themselves be guided by the people and at the same time give them military and political training. The people sharpen their weapons. In fact the training proves short-lived, for the masses, realizing the strength of their own muscles, force the leaders to accelerate events” (ibid.). The intellectuals learn to overcome their prejudice of the ‘barbarous’ mass and to put their organisational and agitational skills to use in cooperation with the people.

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As great as the initial enthusiasm of the revolution is, victory does not come easy: “The epic is played out on a difficult, day-to-day basis and the suffering endured far exceeds that of the colonial period” (ibid., 90). The people get weary, and at some point, the coloniser changes his strategy. He no longer uses pure force to suppress the revolution but makes concessions and changes his rhetorics to pacify the people (cf. ibid. 91). At the same time, as the revolution becomes bigger and more complex, spontaneity shows its limits. The consequences of this are worth quoting in full length, as it is here that the intellectual’s role becomes clearer:

As long as the revolution only inverts the Manichean order, it remains within its binary structure and fails to create something new: the nation, the new people, that are needed to permanently overcome the condition of suppression. The people need to discover the nuances of the struggle, and it is the militant’s job to help them do so, and this in turn will shape the idea of the future nation further. The danger of imitating the Western model, which is based on exploitation, is imminent, as the colonial economic structure is hierarchical by default. One of the primary dangers of post-independence is in that sense that the foreign rule is merely replaced by a local elite, the national bourgeoisie, which then becomes an “intermediary” (ibid., 100) for European interests and firms, thereby selling out the nation to multinational corporations. The task of the intellectual is in that sense twofold: On the one side, there is the positive task of cooperating to shape the future nation and creates its values and ideas, and the negative task of criticising anyone who tries to create a new national superstructure, and thereby to betray the national cause.

The first task, the creation of the nation, cannot be done with help of an individualistic thinking, as this would once again reintroduce a binary structure, where the intellectual is leading the people. “Nobody has a monopoly on truth, neither the leader nor the militant. The search for truth in local situations is the responsibility of the community [affaire collective]” (ibid., 139). This is a radically democratic endeavour, but it is not anarchic. Obviously, the new nation will need a government. But it is not majority rule that will guarantee its democratic nature. “The flow of ideas from the upper echelons to the rank and file and vice versa must be an unwavering principle, not for merely formal reasons but quite simply because adherence to this principle is the guarantee of salvation” (ibid., 138). Just as the politics of the new nation needs to be one of radical decentralisation (cf. ibid.), so is the truth of the new nation created on a fragmentary basis through discussion, participation, and responsibility:

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Is this not exactly that which Deleuze will call “the indignity of speaking for others” (Foucault/Deleuze, 209) in his conversation with Foucault? The negation of the monopoly of truth, the wresting of it from the hands of the elites, now shows its fundamentally democratic core. And does Fanon not anticipate and already develop the following statement by Foucault: “It is not to ‘awaken consciousness’ that we struggle, but to sap power, to take power; it is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power, and not their illumination from a safe distance. A ‘theory’ is the regional system of this struggle” (ibid., 208). My intention is not to negate the originality of Deleuze’s and Foucault’s thought, but rather to show that it has its genealogy that they don’t seem to have grasped. May 68 as a child of the anticolonial struggle reintroduces a complexity not only into this particular event, but into the whole historiography of the second half of the 20th century. Forgetting it does not only lead to a whitewashing of these ideas, but also to many misunderstanding in view of their political nature. What fundamentally constitutes these ideas is the search for a new humanism, a new humanity that would free itself from exploitation and misery. In the words of Fanon:

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

Armah, Ayi Kwei: “Masks and Marx: The Marxist Ethos vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Praxis,” , №131 (3e Trimestre 1984), 35–65.

Fanon, Frantz: , Grove 2004.

Foucault, Michel/Deleuze, Gilles: “Intellectuals and Power,” in: Bouchard, Donald F. (ed.): Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, Cornell UP 1973, 205–217.

Wynter, Sylvia: “Beyond Liberal and Marxist Leninist Feminisms: Towards an Autonomous Frame of Reference,” , Vol. 24, №1–2 (Fall 2018), 31–56.

Бердяев, Николай Александрович: Наука 1990 [=Berdyaev, Nikolai: ].


December 2019


Self-Defense, Necessary Force, and the Ethics of Modern Warfare

Daniel Rhodes in conversation with Helen Frowe

Frantz Fanon: Anticolonial Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory

by Timofei Gerber

How to Drive a Car: A Defense of Achievement as Competence

by Christopher Carroll

Why Thoughts Are Not In The Head: Frege on Sense

by John C. Brady