The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Chapter 2 : Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness | Summary



In this chapter Frantz Fanon turns away from the international stage to focus on the process of decolonization. He claims decolonization is an uneven process. There is a "time lag" between the leaders of "nationalist parties" and "the mass of people." In the colonized countries the mass of people are peasants. The leaders of nationalist parties, by contrast, are educated "town dwellers." One might expect Fanon to say the time lag means the urbanized, educated people are ahead of their less modern siblings in the countryside. But he argues the opposite is the case. The "native intellectuals, who have studied in their respective 'mother countries,'" adopt the attitudes and goals of the settlers. The peasants in the countryside are thoroughly anticolonial and are ahead of the city dwellers in revolutionary fervor.

The nationalist parties of colonized nations are modeled on parties in the "mother countries." But the colonial situation is different. Those older parties focus on the most radical, revolutionary element of society in the home country: the worker. In Europe, a factory worker could be considered one of "the wretched of the earth." But in the colonies the workers are the ones "most pampered by the colonial regime." (These are not factory workers but bureaucrats and professionals. There are few or no factories in the colony.) These workers hold the revolution back because they stand to lose so much. They would like everything to stay as it is, except with themselves on top. Therefore anticolonial struggle in the colony cannot be modeled on class struggle in the mother country. It must begin with the peasant.

Fanon does not see peasant life through rose-colored glasses. Under colonialism peasant life is impoverished and hard. It is shut out from the benefits of colonialism. Moreover, the colonial powers often try to intensify the "petrification" of peasant life, says Fanon. By "petrify," he means to harden the peasant's premodern ways, which are full of "marabouts, witch doctors, and customary chieftains." (A marabout is a North African hermit or monk.) But the conflict between the urban worker and the peasant is not "the old antagonism between town and country." It is a conflict between those shut out from "the advantages of colonialism" and those reaping the rewards.

The answer is not to leave everything in the hands of the rebellious peasant. Fanon says the nationalist parties do exactly this. They turn their backs and are content to let others fight it out. Any rebellion carried out solely by the isolated peasantry is doomed, according to Fanon. He proposes a solution. Police repression causes the native intellectual to flee the town. The peasant welcomes him, and both are changed by this encounter. This union of peasant and urbanite is Fanon's solution. Ultimately, this union will enable the spontaneous uprising to be channeled into a successful revolution. This revolution not only throws off the colonial ruler, it also changes the structure of the new nation.

However, much of the rest of the chapter concerns the many ways the revolution can falter. Parties based on "ethnic or regional differences" can spring up, or the occupying power negotiates decolonization treaties with "the party ... it considers to be the most 'reasonable.'" This "reasonable" party is made up of educated urban people. Its goal is not to overthrow colonialism but to "com[e] to a friendly agreement with it."

The spontaneity that drove uprisings in the countryside is "condemned ... to self-repudiation." Fanon claims spontaneous outbursts of rage and violence will only get the revolution so far. To reach meaningful social change, the urban classes and the peasants must come together. Fanon then describes the kind of joyous guerrilla warfare that follows. The "rebel leaders" turn away from the countryside and "bring the war into the enemy's camp ... into his grandiose, peaceful cities." The colonists also step up their game. They attempt to divide the population. Fanon notes in Algeria the lumpenproletariat—the poor and unemployed living in shanty towns—often joined the French Army, where they were tasked with beating back the revolution. Against these divisions Fanon counsels unity. He also points out hatred cannot be the basis for the way forward. It "cannot draw up a program."


The narrative thread in the first three chapters is occasionally downplayed in favor of analysis. This second chapter describes the successful overthrow of the colonists. But this story is occasionally overshadowed by consideration of the potential missteps. Readers are warned the war of national liberation cannot happen overnight, "spanning the gap at one stride." To prepare readers for the long struggle, Frantz Fanon describes the ways the colonial power regroups and fights harder.

In describing the colonial power's redoubled efforts, Fanon mentions the "petrification" of peasant life. He says the colonial rulers intensify this petrification, the better to intensify the antagonism between urban workers and rural peasants. Fanon uses the word petrify to explain how premodern ways of life in the country are inflexible, rigid, and hard as stone. In this discussion he also makes clear his own judgment: he favors modernization. One could imagine another, more multicultural view of rural North African life. For example, the witch doctors could be venerated for their traditional wisdom. But this is not Fanon's view of the peasantry. In this he follows Karl Marx (and most of the world). In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx declares the urban bourgeoisie dominates the countryside: it "has subjected the country to the rule of the towns." This is a good thing, Marx says, because the bourgeoisie has "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life." Idiocy does not only mean stupidity. The root of the word, idio, refers to what is individual, separate, or isolated. Fanon too would like to rescue his countrymen from "the idiocy of rural life," although he does not want to turn them into town dwellers. His book is aimed at freeing the colonized peoples, rural and urban alike, from isolation and seeing them join all of humanity. At heart Fanon's vision is universal.

This chapter's title refers to the "strength and weakness" of spontaneity. One of the weaknesses of the countryside's spontaneous uprising is its reliance on hatred. Hatred spurs the native to rise up after such outrages as the massacre at Sétif. But hatred alone is not enough. For one thing, hatred is easily disarmed in the colonial context. Fanon notes the way the colonials, afraid of the uprising, begin to address the native as "Mister." He remarks, "Hatred is disarmed by these psychological windfalls."

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