Violence of the violated (Fanon review article)

A review article of Fanon, Frantz – The Wretched of the Earth. London, MacGibbon & Kee, 196s. $36. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. London, Monthly Review Press, 196s. $4.95.

Published in the IRR’s Newsletter 22 March 1967.

[Fanon’s terms ‘native’ and ‘colonised’ (for Algerians and Africans generally) are here interpreted in the broader sense of ‘Negro’ to show the applicability of his theories to the American situation.]

When Stokely Carmichael proclaims violence as the final philosophy of Negro action, the white world recoils in horror. But it was not so long ago that Fanon argued, conclusively for many, that the violated have no choice but violence. That anyone’s range of choice should be so horribly reduced to this one inescapable condition is itself a measure of the violence that has been visited upon him. It is the liberal fallacy which states that man has a choice whatever this condition or circumstance. And it is the Fallacy of the white world generally that violence needs to be overt and obtrusive before it is found to be evil.

Man and Non-Man

A world divided into compartments, a segregated world, Fanon maintains, is a Manichaean world. It is a world in which, to borrow a phrase from Buber, man is prevented from being confirmed by his fellow man. The Negro must keep his place, he must not be allowed to go beyond certain limits, and when he does it must be at the instance of the white man and at a pace dictated by him. Should he (the Negro) so much as quicken his step or move from his allotted place, he would be brought back by force – which, after all, is the only language he understands. Meanwhile, he must accept the white man’s image of himself as the quintessence of evil… ‘representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values … the corrosive element disfiguring all that has to do with beauty of morality.’

In consequence, continues Fanon, the Negro psyche becomes a coiled, palpating, pent-up thing, ‘ready at a moment’s notice to exchange the role of the quarry for that of the hunter.’ The Negro’s dreams are dreams of physical prowess, of action and of aggression. ‘From non in the evening until six in the morning he never stops achieving his freedom.’ And the symbols of social order – law, the police, the militia, even the waving flags – serve only to enhance his obsession. They are both frightening and stimulating: they keep him in his place while at the same time challenging him to go beyond it. ‘In certain emotional conditions,’ observes Fanon, ‘the presence of an obstacle accentuates the tendency towards motion’ and generates a sort of death wish. He is potentially a corpse anyway, he has nothing to lose and himself to achieve. He has life to fear rather more than death. ‘ He knows this and begins his life as a man at the end of it; he has seen so many dying men that he prefers victory to survival; others, not he, will have the fruits of victory’ –  and that is Sartre paraphrasing Fanon’s analysis of the ‘native condition’. But it might as well have been written of the American Negro.

At the same time there is the violence born of envy. ‘This world cut in two is inhabited by two different species … The economic sub-structure is also a super-structure. The cause is the consequence: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich…’ The white man’s town is a well-fed town, brightly lit, full of good things. The Negro ghetto, on the other hand, is a hungry town, ‘starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light – peopled by men of evil repute’. And from this benighted world the Negro casts a look of lust, a look of envy, on the white man’s town. ‘It expresses his dreams of possession, all manner of possession’ – of sitting at the white man’s table, of sleeping in the white mans’ bed, with the white man’s wife if possible. His own way of life becomes totally untenable and again the result is a tightening of the muscles, a hardening of the jaw. To aggress it all.

(Elsewhere in his ‘Studies In a Dying Colonialism’ Fanon speaks of the grave trauma inflicted on the Negro family group by years of repression. ‘The home’, he says, ‘is the basis of the truth of society, but society authenticates and legitimises the family.’ The segregated world is the very negation of this ‘reciprocal justification’. What price Moynihan ?)

The Act of Re-Creation

ON a more concrete level, it has been argued by the more reactionary white elements of American society that they have been too permissive of Negro freedom, that the Negro has been allowed to advance too far too fast and, now, like a spoilt child, insists on going further, if necessary with violence. But, says Fanon, when the native ‘find out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than his, the discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner’. From then on the native gains a revolutionary assurance that carries him relentlessly forward towards his liberation, irrespective of consequences.

In the American context, this discovery might be said to have occurred during the years of the civil rights struggle, when for the first time the Negro began to have some notion of himself and his own humanity. He would, if he was allowed, achieve his freedom through peaceful means and the due process of law. He would even put himself out to be violated in that cause and in the hope that white society, recoiling from its own acts of aggression, would afford him ‘a charter of humanity’. But if the white man still stood in his way, he must strike him down, ‘This irrepressible violence’, says Sartre in his preface to Fanon, ‘is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.’ Accord him then his humanity, urges Sartre, before it is too late.

But for the American Negro it is already too late. He has found out, at the utmost risk to himself, that white values are meaningless and white promises ineffectual. There was time when he might have believed in what Fanon terms the white world’s ‘narcissistic dialogue’ of eternal values. But today ‘all these speeches seem like a collection of dead words; these values which seemed to uplift the soul are revealed as worthless’ simply because they have nothing to do with the reality of his own life. The white man, it is obvious, does not believe in them himself. His ideology is and ideology of lies, ‘a perfect justification for pillage, its honeyed words, and its affection of sensibility are only alibis for aggressions.’ For how else could the white man lay claim to the human condition and deny it at the same time? The reason, says Sartre, is that he is estranged from himself. ‘Our victims know us by their scars and by their chains and it is this that makes their evidence irrefutable. It is enough that they show us what we have made of them for us to realise what we have made of ourselves.’ In effect, the re-generation of the Negro is the regeneration of the white man.

Redemption Through Violence

But this regeneration cannot take place except through violence. And if violence is inevitable it is as well to see it as a redemptory force, even a constructive one. Here Fanon the theoretician of revolutionary violence takes over from Fanon the psychiatrist (and Carmichael takes over from both). The death wish, ‘the collective auto-destruction’, must be externalised, directed against the white man and his cities. It is futile to expect that the native will be handed his freedom on a platter. He must wrest it from his oppressor and find his manhood in the process. ‘At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.’ Values are hewn out anew. Truth, honour, justice, loyalty, the brother-hood of man – these are rediscovered and redefined. ‘The child of violence … he draws from it his humanity’ – so Sartre, echoing Fanon, and he goes on: ‘we were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man, of higher quality.’ Let the native start fighting and if he has no other arms ‘the waiting knife’ is enough.

The continuing memory of Vietnam may add cogency to this exhortation, it can only mean the ultimate resolution of his death wish. ‘Burn, baby, burn’ is a poignant expression of the Negro condition, but as a philosophy of political action it has lost before it has begun.

Fanon, Frantz – The Wretched of the Earth. London, MacGibbon & Kee, 196s. $36. Studies in a Dying Colonialism. London, Monthly Review Press, 196s. $4.95.