The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Chapter 1 : Concerning Violence | Summary

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Summary

World Cut in Two

Frantz Fanon begins with an axiom: "Decolonization is always violent." An axiom is something regarded as self-evidently true, a statement forming the basis for an argument. Decolonization is the process by which a colony attains independence and becomes its own sovereign nation. Fanon points out decolonization has many political flavors. It can be called "national liberation" or "the restoration of nationhood," but it is always violent. Decolonization is always violent because colonization is violent. Thus, violent conquest engenders a violent rebellion.

Fanon also describes decolonization as the substitution of one "species" for another. He puts the word "species" in quotation marks because settlers and natives actually belong to just one species, the human species. But Fanon refers to native and settler as separate species to show how starkly different the two groups are. "The colonial world is a world cut in two," Fanon writes. This division has two separate spaces, "the settler's town" and "the native town." The settler's town is one Fanon describes as "well-fed" and "easy-going." It is "a town of white people, of foreigners." The "native town," also called the "Negro village," the "medina," and the "reservation," is in contrast "a place of ill fame."

The colonial world is also cut in two in a conceptual or abstract way. Not only are there two "species" and two spaces, there are also two forces. As Fanon writes, "The colonial world is a Manichean world." Manicheanism was a religion of dualism in 3rd-century Persia. Dualism is the belief there are two opposing principles ordering the world. Dualism often designates one force as good and the other as evil. Thus, Fanon is saying the colonial world is split into two opposing principles or forces: settler and native. The native is viewed as the evil force: "The settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil."

One figure tries to cross the divide between worlds. This figure is "the native intellectual," whom Fanon also calls "the colonized intellectual." The native or colonized intellectual often has ties to "the bourgeoisie of the colonialist country." Bourgeoisie is a word of French origin, and refers to the middle class or the propertied class. The native intellectual has an interest in decolonization, but often in order to profit from continued exploitation. The native intellectual stands to gain equally from "yesterday's colonialism" and from "the loot of whatever national resources exist" under "today's national governments."

The native wants to take the settler's place. As Fanon writes, "The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor." The symbols of colonial power, such as "the police, the bugle calls in the barracks, military parades and the waving flags," have a double effect on the native, "inhibitory and stimulating." That is, the reminders of colonial power inhibit the native's rebellion, keeping him in place: "Don't dare to budge" is the message. But the symbols of colonial power also have a "stimulating" effect, exciting the native's desire. "Get ready to attack" is the other message.

Forces against Decolonization

Colonial rule raises in the native "an anger which he [the settler] deprives of [an] outlet." The anger seeks an outlet in dreams, myths, and intertribal violence. All these are substitutes for the overthrow of colonial rule. When it comes to the overthrow of colonial rule, elites in the native country hope it may occur without violence. They talk a big game but are meek in action. As Fanon writes, "They are violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes."

Fanon examines the ways nationalist parties can hamper the cause of national liberation. A nationalist party, in this context, is one favoring the overthrow of colonial rule and the establishment of a sovereign nation. But the nationalist parties of the colonial world are often formed on the model of political parties in the colonizing power, or "mother country." Such parties are urban—they focus on workers. In the mother country, the workers are downtrodden, and so a workers' party promises the triumph of the downtrodden. In the colony, workers are often relatively privileged—they get along in the colonial system, though they'd like to get along with a bit more pay. "Affranchised slaves," Fanon calls them, meaning slaves with the right to vote.

Another group enters the debate, the "colonialist bourgeoisie." Fanon is referring to the settlers who own property and are well off in the colonies. It is the bourgeoisie who promote the principle of nonviolence. The colonialist bourgeoisie favors nonviolence, Fanon argues, because they favor their continued wealth and status, right along with "the intellectual and economic elite of the colonized country." Nonviolence, in Fanon's view, is not a superior moral principle, but a mask for self-interest.

In contrast to the urban intellectuals, "the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain." The "starving peasant," writes Fanon, "is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays." The "nationalist bourgeoisie," in contrast, are among the last of the exploited to discover violence is the only way to end colonial rule. The nationalist bourgeoisie—the well-off natives—favor compromise. They don't want all the bridges blown up, because they want their position to remain secure. They have "taken very good care never to break contact with colonialism." This means the people in the rear guard of the decolonization struggle—the people who do the least to end colonial rule—end up participating in most of the negotiation talks. They favor reform. Reformists are skeptical the native really can fight the colonist with his army and superior weapons. In discussing this point, Fanon compares the original guerrilla fighters—the Spaniards fighting off Napoleon in the 19th century—to colonized people: "The Spanish campaign ... was a very genuine colonial war."

Fanon points out the colonies are not just sources of raw materials: "The colonies have become a market." Therefore, the colonial powers have economic interests in a reformist, nonviolent transfer of power. This viewpoint is also aided by "the inevitable religion," the religion of the colonizers, which teaches nonviolence and turning the other cheek. Another force against full liberation is the "colonial governments" that, surprisingly, favor rapid decolonization. "Quick, quick, let's decolonize," say these governments, but only as a way of shifting the decolonization movement "toward the right, and to disarm the people." These governments believe an abrupt, formal transfer of power could take the steam out of the decolonization struggle.

The Spark and the Cold War

Fanon questions the cause of violence in the colony when he asks: "What makes the lid blow off?" He says it is often a shocking act of repression and lists several instances of violent repression by colonial governments, including the town of "Sétif in Algeria." In 1945 Sétif was the site of a violent uprising against colonial rule, resulting in the deaths of around 100 Europeans. In retaliation, 6,000 to 8,000 Muslims were slaughtered. When there is a spark like Sétif, the colonized people realize "their liberation must, and can only, be achieved by force."

The Cold War affects the decolonization movement, writes Fanon. The Cold War refers to the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, the capitalist and communist superpowers, respectively. The war was so named because it was fought using ideology, propaganda, and proxy wars rather than physical combat. The United States has an interest in hurrying decolonization along, the better to defang its rhetoric of power to the people. That is, Fanon argues the United States fears decolonization could be a propaganda coup for communism, an "opportunity for socialist propaganda to infiltrate among the masses and to contaminate them."

Violence in the International Context

In this chapter Fanon describes the international political relationship between newly independent nations and former colonial powers. The formerly colonized nations are often called "underdeveloped," as if they were weak seedlings not yet fully grown. This assumes the colonial powers are properly developed nations. Fanon points out the wealth of the European and American development was built by the colonies. "European opulence ... comes directly from the soil ... of that underdeveloped world." The European standard of living is achieved "with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races."

It is not enough for the settlers to pack up and leave Africa, Asia, and South America behind, argues Fanon. Fanon sums up one of the European attitudes: "Since you want independence, take it and starve." But the settlers owe their former colonies reparations payments, argues Fanon. This is not only a matter of money, though money is certainly part of it. Fanon further demands the former settlers "help ... rehabilitate mankind." This means "reintroducing mankind into the world, the whole of mankind"—a human race no longer divided into settler and native.

Analysis

Frantz Fanon analyzes violent rebellion as originating with violent rule. In the native's violent uprising against the colonizer, the violence is a force that originally stemmed from the colonizer. Fanon is not offering a moral justification of violent revolution. He is simply saying dehumanizing violent oppression eventually has violent consequences. But within lies an implicit moral argument: the violent settlers deserve what they get. However, Fanon's interest does not lie in morally justifying violent uprising. His overall aim in the book is to show how spontaneous uprising can be channeled into a revolution that truly changes humanity.

Fanon is writing about the struggles of colonized peoples, particularly in Africa and Asia, after World War II. The historical process of decolonization involved many people, but in Fanon's philosophical style of writing, these people are condensed into single individuals such as the native and the settler. Turning groups of people into representative figures transforms them into something similar to fictional characters. Their adventures are not false, but they are gripping in the way fiction can be gripping. Another way Fanon makes his narrative gripping is by using the first person, "I." Events are sometimes described from the first-person perspective of a native. For example, Fanon describes the native's realization of autonomy this way. "His [the settler's] glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me." Moreover, "his voice no longer turns me into stone." These novelistic, first-person, sensory details make the narrative of revolution engaging.

It is tempting to see something autobiographical in this use of the first person. No doubt Fanon had had the experience of being gazed upon as alien by Europeans. He encountered antiblack racism in France, first as a soldier in the French Army and then as a medical student. However, the first person in The Wretched of the Earth is not always the native. In discussing the fate of underdeveloped nations, Fanon writes, "Everything's going badly out there since we left." Here the first-person plural is the voice of the colonizers. Additionally, Fanon probably did not personally have all the experiences ascribed to the native in this book. He was not a peasant, for example.

Seen from one perspective, this first chapter is just the beginning of a three-part narrative. The chapter focuses on the violent uprising and the origin of this violence in colonial rule. The second chapter shows how peasants must be joined by urban forces and the rural guerrilla war must be brought to settlers' cities. The third chapter analyzes postwar independence and how to move forward. (The remaining chapters add to the analysis, but the narrative of revolution ends with chapter three.) However, seen from a different perspective, the first chapter tells the entire story in which Fanon looks ahead to postwar independence and to international relations.

There is an echo of dependency theory in Fanon's analysis of the colonial situation. Dependency theory is a political and economic theory of the special path underdeveloped nations must take. In contrast to dependency theory, the standard political view of underdeveloped nations followed the development theory. Underdeveloped nations would modernize after their contact with Western developed nations. Their agrarian economies would become modern and industrial, following the same path as European countries. So the underdeveloped nations were just behind their peers, like a student left behind a grade or two in elementary school. In contrast, dependency theory analyzes the international system to show how wealth flows from the colonies and former colonies to the colonial powers. It claims colonized nations have a different path to take. Such nations are structurally different than the modernized First and Second World nations. Third World nations are different because they have been economically exploited by First and Second World nations. Putting people to work in coal mines to fill the pockets of European or American investors changes the process of modernization. These arguments were made by Latin American intellectuals under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA). Their point was not that underdeveloped nations should be celebrated for their lack of a modern standard of living. Modernization remained the goal, but the point is it cannot happen in the same way it did for the colonizers.

Fanon rejects the traditional view of modernization when he says, "We are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe." His views are aligned with dependency theory when he points out the wealth of Europe is built up "with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races."

Fanon has a bitter and sharp analysis of postcolonial governments. He argues the native intellectual is in favor of "nationalizing the robbery of the nation." When a colonized country takes back an industry from foreign interests, this process is called nationalization. For example, an extractive industry like coal can be taken away from an international coal corporation and placed in the ownership of a new nation. Fanon's phrase "nationalizing the robbery of the nation" is an interesting one. The idea of nationalization implies a kind of justice: the profits will be retained by the people who do the work. Fanon shows nationalization can mean simply getting a different group of exploiters. This passage also points to a tension in Fanon's narrative. In 1961 when Fanon was writing this book, there were already many examples of former colonies devolving into neocolonialism, the continuation of colonial rule by other means after independence has been formally achieved. But there may not have been any examples of a nation turning out the way Fanon envisaged. Therefore, his descriptions of the way things work will eventually have to turn into prescriptions. At such moments Fanon is no longer narrating what has happened, or what necessarily happens over and over again. He is now speculating on what could or should happen. He also looks ahead, in this first chapter, to the ultimate aim of the revolution. This aim is not just to establish independence for the colony. It is also to "rehabilitate mankind."

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