43 pages • 1 hour readFrantz Fanon
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Wretched of the Earth (1961) is a nonfiction book by Frantz Fanon, a French West Indian psychiatrist and philosopher. Together with such texts as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), The Wretched of the Earth is a founding text of modern postcolonial studies. It is also Frantz Fanon’s most internationally acclaimed book, translated into more than 25 languages.
Written at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, Wretched of the Earth presents an analytical exploration of the inner workings and various stages of the decolonization process, as well as an impassioned apology for the need for violence in the anticolonial struggle. The book also marks a turn in Fanon’s thinking from his earlier preoccupation with the problems of Blackness and Black oppression to a wider, global take on the struggle between Western countries and their colonies. Inspired by Marxist and Leninist ideas, Fanon adapts the notions of class struggle and social justice to the racialized colonial context. His analysis of the problems facing colonized societies culminates in the total rejection of European values through a cathartic violent struggle against the oppressors.
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The book’s title is taken from Eugène Pottier’s 1871 “Internationale,” the song considered the anthem of left-wing parties worldwide and used as the official national anthem of the Soviet Union until 1944. The full phrase in English goes “Arise ye wretched of the earth / For justice thunders condemnation / A better world’s in birth!”
The text comprises five main sections, a Conclusion, and a Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre that outlines why Fanon’s book is a seminal work and why it should be read by European, especially French, audiences. Additionally, Sartre uses The Wretched of the Earth to highlight his own support for national self-determination and dissatisfaction with the French Left, which he considers ineffective and hypocritical.
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The first part, “Concerning Violence,” defines the notions of colonization and decolonization and delves into why violence seems to be an inescapable facet of the decolonization process. The author examines the colonial logic that divides settlers from natives and necessitates the dehumanization of the latter to facilitate their exploitation. Consequently, according to him, decolonization involves reversing the existing status quo, which, by its nature, is a violent and chaotic process.
The second part, “Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness,” presents a well-rounded description of the various segments of colonial society and how they interact. Additionally, Fanon contrasts the situation in a place, such as Algeria, to the one described by Friedrich Engels in 19th-century England. Unlike the Western proletariat, which is the most organized and politically aware social class, urban wage workers in colonial countries are in a relatively privileged position. In contrast, it is the peasants who are the most dispossessed and dream of taking back their land from the settlers. However, Fanon points out that in many places, traditional clan leaders, oracles, and medicine men who want to safeguard their influence in the community prefer to work with the colonial powers rather than local city dwellers who bring to the village such progressive ideas as atheism, modern medicine, and universal education. As a result, the author appeals to nationalist parties to actively educate and include the peasant population in the liberation struggle rather than ignore and distrust farmers, as is usually the case.
The third part, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” cautions readers against the dangers of nationalism when left unchecked. Fanon brings in examples from other African countries, such as the Ivory Coast, where locals discriminate against other African minorities, imitating the native bourgeoisie’s chauvinistic attitudes toward settlers. Ultimately, those who were oppressed by the Europeans become oppressors in turn.
The fourth part, “On National Culture,” examines why colonized peoples seem to lack a national culture. Fanon asserts that the dehumanization inherent in colonization also causes the dismissal or suppression of local culture. This part also contains a subsection that examines how colonialism obliterates local culture and asserts that decolonization is thus the ultimate form of cultural expression.
The last part, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” presents real examples of mental illness, witnessed by Fanon during his residency in Algeria. These range from psychological problems, such as impotence in men whose wives were raped or sociopathic tendencies in adolescents, to the long-term physical results of torture. The author concludes this section by debunking the myth, propagated by the French, that Algerians are born violent and mentally deficient. He positions colonization not only as a social-cultural-political problem but also as a psychological malady afflicting both oppressors and oppressed.
In the Conclusion Fanon appeals to his readers to disregard the West, both Europe and the United States, as a role model since its successes were achieved at a high human price. Great ideas and scientific discoveries do not balance out the atrocities perpetrated by white colonizers in the name of European values. The author concludes that the third world must find its own unique way forward.
By Frantz Fanon