The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Context



The end of World War II led to a shift in global political structures. From 1945 to the 1970s, European and American colonies all over the world freed themselves and became independent nations. This process is known as decolonization. The Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946. In 1945 Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) from 1945 to 1969, declared Vietnam independent. However, Vietnam would fight a long war of independence against France and the United States from 1945 to 1975.

Decolonization changed the face of Africa. Starting in 1950 President Kwame Nkrumah (1909–72) led a series of strikes and nonviolent protests to push Britain out of Africa's Gold Coast and British Togoland. Nkrumah was victorious, and the newly independent territory formed the country of Ghana in 1957. Portugal withdrew from Angola in 1975. In 1960 trade unionist and activist Patrice Lumumba (1925–61) became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo after a struggle for independence forced Belgium to give up its colony. And as Frantz Fanon experienced firsthand, France fought a long war to keep its colony Algeria. France eventually lost, and Algeria became independent in 1962, a year after Fanon's death.

As these examples show, independence was sometimes achieved without resorting to war. However, Fanon writes on the first page of The Wretched of the Earth: "Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon." The colonial power maintains its rule through violence. According to Fanon, the colonized subject—"the native"—realizes their humanity through violent rebellion against the colonial master. In violent rebellion the native becomes aware that they are just as human as the colonizer: "His life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler."

There seems to be a contradiction between the history of decolonization and Fanon's account of decolonization as necessarily violent. Again, as the previous examples show, decolonization sometimes proceeded by way of nonviolent tactics. For example, Kwame Nkrumah used strikes to resist British rule in Togoland. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) promoted the use of nonviolent protest against British rule in India in the early 20th century. And yet Fanon declares, "Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon." However, the responses of colonial powers to nonviolent tactics were often violent. For example, British soldiers fired into a crowd of 10,000 unarmed people in Jallianwala Bagh, located in India, during a protest in 1919, killing approximately 400. Thus, although nonviolent actions were undertaken in resistance, the overall phenomenon of decolonization still involved violence.

Algerian History and the War of Independence

For more than a century (1671–1830) the nation now known as Algeria was ruled by the deys of Algiers. Dey was the title given to those who ruled the Regency of Algiers in semiautonomous connection to the Ottoman Empire, a vast empire built by Turkish tribes in the 15th century that lasted until 1920. On July 5, 1830, the French Army landed near Algiers, the country's capital. After a brief skirmish with the French army, the last Ottoman leader of Algiers, Husayn, agreed to go into exile. The French looted Algiers and took over farmland. The Ottoman deys had been Muslim. The shift to French rule also meant rule by a Christian, European minority. In the following years French forces clashed with those of leader Abdel Kader, who resisted French rule. Kader practiced Sufism, which is a mystical sect of the Islam religion. Fanon cites Abdel Kader as one of the "great figures" of national resistance in The Wretched of the Earth. At one point Abdel Kader succeeded in driving the French back, but in 1847 he surrendered. After years of military rule, Algeria became part of France in 1870.

Opposition to French rule in Algeria, however, continued throughout the early to mid-20th century. During World War II French general and politician Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), who was head of the provisional French government from 1944 to 1946 and later president of France (1959–69), declared that France owed something to Algerians for their loyalty to France during the war. However, the granting of French citizenship to some Muslims when the war ended was not enough to satisfy Algerians. In May 1945 resisters displayed Algerian nationalist flags at the town of Sétif. French forces fired on the demonstrators, killing somewhere between 8,000 and 45,000 Muslim Algerians. The number depends on whether someone cites French or Algerian sources.

This resistance erupted into outright war in 1954. The National Liberation Front (FLN) began a guerrilla war—fought by civilians using irregular military maneuvers such as small-scale attacks—against France. The FLN also appealed to the United Nations for recognition as an independent nation. The guerrilla attacks in and around the city of Algiers from 1956 through 1957 became known as the Battle of Algiers.

French forces held on through sheer numbers and might. In 1956 France granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia. This only made the French forces more determined to keep Algeria. They erected barbed wire fences along Algeria's borders to cut it off from independent Tunisia. Over 500,000 French troops were sent to Algiers in this period. As with the U.S. reaction to the Vietnam War (1954–75), which was also related to decolonization from the French, the violence of the conflict in Algeria shocked citizens in France. Though it was still a minority opinion, many people in France favored Algerian independence, but no French leaders dared to take this position in public initially. Meanwhile, right-wing extremists undertook a campaign of terror in both Algeria and France with the aim of blocking Algerian independence.

In October 1958 de Gaulle granted French citizenship to all Algerian Muslims. This was not yet independence, however. In September 1959 he publicly declared Algerians had the right to determine their future. Elements of the French Army felt betrayed by these developments. The French general Raoul Salan (1899–1984) led an abortive coup in April 1961, attempting to take over the French Army and occupy Algiers. The coup failed, and in July 1962 Algerians voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence.


Fanon's writing style in The Wretched of the Earth shows the influence of the philosophical movement known as phenomenology. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy focused on consciousness. In contrast to metaphysics, which tries to find out what is real, phenomenology focuses on experience. The Wretched of the Earth shows the influence of two phenomenologists, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) (Sartre wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth).

Hegel wrote a book called Phenomenology of the Spirit in 1807. He explains that everything in the universe begins with a consciousness called Absolute Spirit. The book is about how the universe unfolded. Hegel's ideas about this follow a repeated path. First, Absolute Spirit is confronted by something other than itself. Next, Absolute Spirit recognizes itself in this other. In the next step Absolute Spirit realizes, on the contrary, it is more than this other. Absolute Spirit falls back into itself, crushed but also changed by the encounter. With each new phase of going out of and coming back to itself, Absolute Spirit grows richer and more complex. The process unfolds by way of negation. Absolute Spirit is forever realizing it is alienated—it is not itself. Therefore, Hegel called his philosophical system "the path of doubt, or more properly a highway of despair." Hegel's form of progress is also called dialectics—the systematic process of historical change—a term Fanon also uses.

The Wretched of the Earth could also be called a path of doubt. It is not a blueprint for an easily attained utopia. Everything proceeds through a process of doubt, beginning with the native doubting what the settler has taught him: that he is an animal. The Wretched of the Earth also takes readers on a path of despair. Fanon shows how spontaneous uprisings against the settlers backfire time and time again. Tribal affiliations are promoted, destroying national unity. When natives have the settlers on the run, the settlers respond with new tactics: "Doubts spring up and begin to weigh heavily upon the rebels." A new ruling class arises, native but still exploitative, betraying the revolution. As with Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit, for Fanon there is ultimately a good ending, but it takes a lot of despair to get there.

Hegel also influenced 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx was not a phenomenologist but he nonetheless had a profound influence on Fanon. Marx was especially taken with a passage from Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit. This passage is known as the master-slave dialectic. In a form of social domination, the master and slave confront each other. They each demand recognition from the other. Initially, only the master receives recognition from the slave. But the slave comes to know himself through his labor. When he recognizes himself in his work he has the freedom to rebel against the master. Marx took this dialectic from Hegel and focused it on his contemporary world—Europe in the process of industrialization. He proposed the struggle between classes is the engine of history. This Marxist idea can be seen in The Wretched of the Earth. The struggles of the colonized peoples are "starting a new history of Man" and can help "humanity ... advance a step further," Fanon writes.

The Wretched of the Earth is a book about decolonization, written after some nations had already become independent. Fanon could have written a history of decolonization. Such a book would be written in the past tense. He could have speculated on the future of decolonization. Such a book would be in the future tense. But, like Hegel, Fanon writes in a somewhat ideal, abstracted present tense. This makes everything he writes seem self-evident, foundational, and undoubtedly true. It seems Fanon is describing something that happens not just once, but again and again: "Thus the native discovers ... his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler." Or again: "The neighboring police barracks is captured, the policemen are hacked to pieces." These are representative experiences that occur in many nations and for many people.

Like other phenomenologists, Sartre also philosophized about experience. Like Hegel, he wrote an enormous, systematic work, Being and Nothingness (1943). But Sartre also focused on subtle, nuanced experiences of consciousness and social reality. Sartre's influence shows in Fanon when he describes the subtle mental reverberations of social encounters. For example, after the native attains consciousness of his freedom, Fanon uses the first person to describe the experience: "My life is worth as much as the settler's, his glance no longer shrivels me up." The focus on the gaze is especially Sartrean. Fanon's use of "I" here does not necessarily refer to the author himself, born in Martinique. It is a philosophical "I." Any native reader could recognize themselves in the statement "His glance no longer shrivels me."
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