The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Main Ideas


The Native Is the Settler's Creation

One of the axioms—a foundational idea—of The Wretched of the Earth is announced early in the first chapter: "It is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence." By this Fanon means the idea of the native is a product of the settler's thinking. Thus "the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil." Other qualities ascribed to the native include laziness, a lack of respect for the law, and finally animality—the settler considers the native less than human. These qualities do not stem from the native, or even from observation, but from the mind of the settler. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre analyzed a similar dynamic in his book Anti-Semite and Jew (1948): "If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him." Fanon expresses this idea a little more extremely: the settler did invent the native, and the settler continues to maintain this fiction of the evil, animalistic native.

The lack of recognition the native receives is deeply damaging. Fanon calls this "a systematic negation of the other person [the native]." The settler "den[ies] the other person all attributes of humanity." But another consequence of the thoroughly fictional nature of this construct is its fragility. The construct of the evil native does not last forever. As soon as the native has a glimpse of his own autonomy, the construct falls apart. Eventually the native "finds out ... the settler's skin is not of any more value than a native's skin." This "discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner" and gives the native a "new, revolutionary assurance." The effect of this discovery is the native's violent rebellion.

Colonized People Are Reborn Through Violence

In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon shows how the violence of colonial rule is turned against the settler. To dominate the native the settler uses violence, including "a great array of bayonets and cannons." This same violence then confronts the settler in the form of the rebelling native. "That same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native," Fanon writes. This process from domination to rebellion is an automatic one, Fanon implies. It is simply what happens when domination is maintained through violence.

Fanon adds to this another axiom. He claims violent rebellion enables the native to discover himself. The native has been misrecognized and has been labeled evil by the settler. The native has been subjected to "centuries of unreality" and "the most outlandish phantoms." The mistreatment stirred up aggression in the native, but this aggression was channeled. It was "appeased by myths," that is, unreal imaginings of native power and native happiness. But now, through violent uprising, the native "discovers reality." Now the native can "transform" reality, shaping it into the "pattern of his customs, into the practice of violence and into his plan for freedom."

Fanon is not making a moral argument about what is fair. He is not saying the native should use violence because it is fair for the native to do so, having been the victim of violence. He points to the native's colonial-era myths and "talents in finding fresh ways of committing mass suicide." These are evidence the violence was always there during colonial rule. But with the native's discovery of who he is, it is "possible [to take] a completely new line of action." This new line of action is revolution, and this is what concerns Fanon. Violent uprising will occur. The question is whether the violence will burn out and give rise to neocolonialism, or shape a new nation.

The New Nation Must Not Repeat the Old Domination

Fanon saw how easily a newly independent nation could continue the patterns of colonialism under a new name. Following independence, educated urban elites flock to the new government posts. This class, which Fanon calls "the national bourgeoisie," is made of white-collar workers. It might seem like a good thing for the educated to take charge. But the national bourgeoisie's class position affects their thinking and behavior, Fanon argues. (This is one of Fanon's Marxist ideas—it is not a man's moral character but his position in society that determines what he wants.) The national bourgeoisie is a tiny elite, and this warps their views and their ambitions, according to Fanon. Since they are not factory owners, industrialists, or visionaries, they have no ambition to develop the new nation's industrial base. They are content to see the new nation ply its same old trades. These include growing cash crops for the mother country, buying finished goods from the mother country, and serving as the world's "brothel" by being its tourist playground.

Instead of helping the nation grow, the national bourgeoisie contributes to its decay. The new nation devolves into neocolonialism. In neocolonialism the old colonial powers are still in charge, even though independence has been granted. It is not only the national bourgeoisie who are at fault when the new nation becomes a carbon copy of the old. The old colonial powers also continue to advance their interests. But the very people the old colonial powers feel most at ease with are the national bourgeoisie and the nationalist parties modeled on parties in the mother country.

As an example of neocolonialism Fanon quotes Léon M'ba (1902–67), president of the newly independent Republic of Gabon. M'ba said, "Gabon is independent, but between Gabon and France nothing has changed; everything goes on as before." M'ba meant this as reassurance for the French, but his statement is heartbreaking for anyone at the bottom of the social order in Gabon, or for anyone who cared about justice like Fanon. As Fanon describes the stultifying sameness of neocolonialism, "the immense majority, nine-tenths of the population, continue to die of starvation."

Fanon's proposed solutions are aimed at limiting the power of the national bourgeoisie. His first proposed solution begins before independence. The guerrilla war must be carried out by both peasants and urbanized intellectuals. His second solution is to give the peasants a real political education, rather than just being subjected to speeches or have their emotions whipped up. "We must not voodoo the people," he writes, "nor dissolve them in emotion and confusion." This real political education would enable the peasants to participate in the political life of the new nation. Fanon's third proposed solution for preventing the slide into neocolonialism is decentralization. "The party should be decentralized in the extreme," he writes. By this he means the cities and especially the capital should be de-emphasized. Party functions and government functions should be moved away from the capital. Through these proposals Fanon hopes to keep Algeria and other new nations from continuing the exploitative relationships of colonialism.

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