In the heady pre-revolutionary year of 1967, when it was commonly said we were stumbling through the final stages of "late capitalism" on the way to world-wide socialism, a writer in an underground newspaper, The L.A. Free Press, tried to describe in one sentence the political-cultural interests of young American radicals: "The important literature now is the underground press, the speeches of Malcolm X, the work of Fanon, the songs of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin."
Today the music of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin survives, and Malcolm X remains a black American hero. Alone in that group, Frantz Fanon (1925-61) has receded into history. In France, which educated and celebrated him, he's little read and rarely quoted. Even so, the spiritual climate he helped create remains, which is why his story shouldn't disappear. To forget him is to ignore one crucial foundation stone of the world we confront today. It was Fanon who brought into modern culture the idea that violence can heal the spiritually wounded.
Fanon, a psychiatrist, romanticized murder. He argued that violence was necessary to Third World peoples not just as a way to win their liberty but, even more, because it would cure the inferiority complex that had been created by the teachings of white men. Once liberated by violence, the formerly subject populations could help bring peace and socialism to everyone.
For the young in many parts of the world, he perfectly expressed the spirit of the times. He was the talk of revolutionary Paris in the 1950s, when the young Saloth Sar, not yet known as Pol Pot, lived there. Later, in America, the Weathermen and the Black Panthers loved to quote him. The book in which Fanon clearly articulated his theory, The Wretched of the Earth, went into six editions in Arabic. Today it's hardly necessary for revolutionaries to read him. His poison flows through the bloodstream of everyone who kills joyfully for an imaginary future.
Fanon never knew how far his ideas would reach beyond France and Algeria. He died of leukemia in 1961, at the age of 36, just as The Wretched of the Earth was being published. Lately he has surfaced once more as the subject of Frantz Fanon: A Life, by David Macey, a thorough, thoughtful, and highly detailed biography (the notes and bibliography fill 114 pages). Fanon was a middle-class French West Indian who grew up on Martinique believing French rhetoric about the equality of man. But his Second World War service with the Free French army and his medical education in Lyons taught him that France was profoundly racist. After that, he saw all public life through the prism of race and colonialism. He moved to Algeria and joined the Algerian National Front's fight for independence from France.
So far as we can tell from his writings, he wasn't much interested in the insights to be gained through psychiatry. He was a blamer who taught others to blame. His approach to truth was purely political: "Truth is that which dislocates the colonial regime, that which promotes the emergence of the nation." In other words, he traded thinking for propaganda. Yet he was still regarded as an intellectual.
David Macey began reading him around 1970, when Third World charisma had broad appeal. Today Mr. Macey notes that Fanon "had a talent for hate" and advocated violence that his biographer can no longer justify. But as a good-hearted liberal, Mr. Macey labours to see Fanon in a gentle light: "It was his anger that was so attractive." Well, no, it was his anger that was least attractive, because it blinded him to the consequences of his words.
In the end, this revolutionary healer was a destroyer, part of Algeria's downfall. Life was hard for Algerians when Algeria was a colony, but it has been much harder since the country achieved independence. This is the great paradox of imperial history. The European power that controls an African or Asian nation commits a variety of crimes and is blamed for everything that's wrong, much of the blame being deserved. Then the imperial power retreats, either because of military defeat or because the colony is no longer considered profitable. Next, the newly created government and ostensibly free society deteriorate, the people become even poorer, and it's nearly impossible to see how life can be improved.
After decades of chaos, Algeria imploded in 1988. The original leftist government died of corruption, and when a multi-party system seemed likely to produce a government run by the radical Islamic Salvation Front, the army stepped in and imposed military dictatorship. The killings and counter-killings multiplied. "Over the next 10 years," Mr. Macey writes, "up to 100,000 people would be killed. No one knows the exact figure." Culture also perished. The novelist Tahar Djaout said: "Silence is death, and if you say nothing you die, and if you speak you die, so speak and die." Which is what he did, at the hands of two gunmen. Mr. Macey says: "The Algeria with which Fanon identified so strongly had become a country in which police interrogators used blow torches in cellars and in which mass murder was committed in the name of a perversion of Islam." In this way, the wretched of the Earth became even more wretched.