Frantz Fanon: from decolonization to critical thought


By: Raúl Zibechi

One must put oneself on the side of the oppressed in any circumstance, even when they are wrong, without losing sight, however, that they are made of the same clay as their oppressors. Emil Cioran

Frantz Fanon was an extraordinary being. He lived his short life between four countries: in his native Martinique, in France and in Algeria-Tunisia, where he committed himself to the struggle for independence, joining the National Liberation Front (FLN) as a militant. The coherence between his life and his work is a beacon that should guide us in these moments of uncertainty, when notable risks appear that put in danger the very existence of the humanity of those below.

He intervened in one of modern history’s cruelest wars. The FLN estimated that one million five hundred thousand (1,500,000) Algerians were murdered between the start of the war in 1954 and the proclamation of independence in 1962, which represents fifteen percent of a population that is less than 10 million. French historians reduce that number to a third, which is still a startling. A similar number of Algerians were tortured.

As the chief doctor at the Blida psychiatric hospital (named in 1953), Fanon had a phenomenal experience: he received and cared for the French torturers as well as the Algerians they tortured, which gave him access to the most hidden recesses of colonial oppression and humiliation. One of the lesser-known aspects of his marvelous life was having converted the hospice-prison into “a new community that introduced sports, music, work, and where he even threw in a newspaper written by the infirm.”

His profession as a psychiatrist allowed him to comprehend the attitudes of human beings that were never adequately explained by critical thinking. In those years the turn towards economism and vulgar materialism had been consolidated, which gambled everything on the development of productive forces, a path in which emancipatory ideas tended to imitate capitalist ideas.

The internalization of oppression

The militant generation of the 1960s and 1970s know Fanon through The Wretched of the Earth, his posthumous work published in 1961. It is the book/manifesto of a combatant that affirms the necessity of violence to confront and overcome colonization, because he knows that: “colonialism does not cede except with the knife to the neck.”

Wretched… is a luminous text, full of ideas that go against the grain of the revolutionary common sense of the time, like his defense ofthe peasantry and the lumpen-proletariat as political subjects, since he observes that in the colonies the proletarians (wage earners) are the sector most “pampered by the colonial regime.” He also criticizes the political culture of the lefts, which is dedicated to attracting the most “advanced” people –“the elites most conscious of the proletariat in the cities,” Fanon establishes- without comprehending that in the world of the colonized the central and liberating place that community and family play, not the party or the union.

His passionate defense of the violence of the oppressed must be sifted. It’s always necessary to remember, as Immanuel Wallerstein emphasizes, that: “we can’t achieve anything without violence.” It’s not a minor theme, because the bulk of the antisystemic parties and movements seem to have forgotten it in their wager to imbed themselves in state institutions.

But it’s also true, as the sociologist recognizes, that violence alone doesn’t resolve anything. Fanon goes further when he asserts that: “violence detoxifies,” because “it freed the colonized from his inferiority complex.” In that line of argument, in “The wretched of the earth” he concludes: “Violence elevates the people to the height of the leader.” We know that things are more complex, as a half-century of armed struggle in Latin America teaches.

Despite the importance that Fanon’s last book had on our generation, I consider that the first, Black skin, white mask, in 1952, is the one that gives us better clues about a century of failures of triumphant revolutions. He contributes a view from the subjectivity of the oppressed, something that the Marxists had never managed to unravel in such a crystalline way. He tells us that the inferiority complex of the colonized has two roots: the economic and the internalization or “epidermization” of inferiority. The black man wishes to whiten his skin and have a white girlfriend. The black woman irons her hair and dreams about a white man. Both aspects must be addressed or liberation will be incomplete.

Fanon sticks his finger in the wound when he says that: “the colonized is a persecuted man that wants who permanently dreams about becoming the persecutor” (The wretched of the earth). Consequently, the colonized not only wants to recuperate the settler’s estate, but who also desires his place, because that world arouses envy. He looks directly the hard core of problems that the revolutions have bequeathed and that we cannot continue avoiding, in view of dramas like the ones that Nicaragua is going through. Why do revolutionaries put themselves in the place, material and symbolic, of the oppressors and capitalists, and on occasions of the tyrants against whom they struggle? It leaves us with the question, offering hardly any clues about the possible paths for getting out of this terrible vicious circle that reproduces oppression and internal colonialism in the name of revolution. Fanon goes through the twists and turns of the psyches of the oppressed, with the same rigor and valor with which he questions the revolutionaries who, blinded by rage, commit abuses on the bodies of the colonizers.

The similarities between oppressed and oppressors can only flow from logic distinct from that of power, and can only be disarmed if we are capable of recognizing them. The Sandinista leaders began occupying Somoza’s residences and using their cars for “security” reasons, until the ruling clan ended up acting like the dictator.

The zone of non-being

Fanon understood firsthand that there is a zone of our societies where humanity is systematically wounded by the oppressor’s violence. It’s a structural place, which does not depend on people’s qualities. He believes that it is precisely in that zone, which he calls “the zone of non-being,” where the revolution for which he is giving his life can be born, and warns that the colonial world has compartments whose borders are marked by barracks and police stations. Those two worlds have their own life, particular rules and are related hierarchically. I maintain that the current period of accumulation by dispossession / fourth world war implies the updating of colonial relations. It’s likely that Fanon’s powerful currency comes from the hand of the growing polarization between the richest one percent and the poorest and most humiliated half of humanity, characteristic of the colonial period.

In all his work, the author insisted on showing that what’s valuable for one zone, cannot necessarily be transferred to the other, that the modes of doing politics in the metropolis cannot be the same as in the colony, that the forms of legal and open organization of the zones where the human rights of citizens reign, cannot be copied by those who live in devastated territories like the favelas, palenques, communities of the original peoples and the barrios on the urban peripheries.

For Fanon, the oppressed peoples should not walk behind the left-wing European parties, a question that in the same period his teacher Aimé Césaire denounced in the Letter to Maurice Thorez, wherein he enunciates the “colonialist paternalism” of the French Communist Party, which considered the struggle of the peoples against racism as “one part of a more important group,” whose “everything” is the workers struggle against capitalism.


In Latin America various movements exist that show how the oppressed are resolving in their way the two issues that I have addressed. The texts “Political Economy I and Political Economy II” of Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés of the EZLN, the memories of the Nasa-Misak leader
from the Colombian Cauca, Lorenzo Muelas, as well as the reflections and analysis of Mapuche authorities, among many others that I cannot mention, are good examples of critical thought in the zone of non-being.

In the same sense, the voices of women from below populate the thick volume compiled by Francesca Gargallo, “Feminisms from Abya Yala. Ideas and proposals of women from 607 towns in our America.” To that multiplicity of voices should be added other non-Western forms of expressing world views (cosmovisiones), from weaving and dance to the care of animals, plants and health.

In second place, they discover that to be dispossessed of the image of the oppressor doesn’t achieve recovering the means of production. It’s a necessary step on which something new must be created, but above all different from the old world, woven from non-hierarchical non-oppressive social relations. The history of revolutions teaches us that this is the most complex aspect and the stone on which we have stumbled again and again.

Fanon warned of the risks that rebel action ends up reproducing the colonial logic, in a luminous and premonitory reference to Nietzsche: at the end of Black skin, white mask he warns that there is always resentment in reaction. Only the creation of the new allows us to overcome oppression, since reactive inertia tends to invert it.

A half-century later we are able to celebrate that many movements are committed, here and now, to living with dignity in the zone of non-being, shunning state-centered and patriarchal hierarchies. We imagine that in those creations beats Fanon’s generous heart, overflowing with commitment and creativity.


Originally Published in Spanish by Semanal, a La Jornada Supplement

August 12, 2018

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee





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