The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Preface | Summary



The preface is written by 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He begins by describing the world's population as consisting of "men" and "natives." The "men" are the citizens of colonial empires; the "natives" are the colonized people. Sartre does not really believe "natives" are lesser than "men." He is demonstrating one of Fanon's points: colonialism dehumanizes people.

Frantz Fanon's analysis is summarized by Sartre when he says: "The peasantry, when it rises, quickly stands out as the revolutionary class." All the other classes, such as "the puppet bourgeoisie" and "the urban proletariat" then "fall into line" with "the rural masses."

Sartre denounces the crimes of European settlers in Algeria. He specifically addresses the vigilantism, or acting without official legal authority, during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). There was violent popular resistance to decolonization in Algeria: "The motorhorns [car horns] beat out 'Al-gér-ie fran-çaise' while the Europeans burn Moslems alive." Algérie française is a French, pro-settler slogan meaning "French Algeria," or "Algeria for the French." Regarding the murders, Sartre asks, "Now, which side are the savages on?"

Addressing a European audience, Sartre claims Fanon's book is not addressed to Europeans: "He speaks of you often, never to you." Instead Fanon's book is addressed to colonized people. Sartre adds, referring to colonized people in the third person: "His aim is to teach them to beat us at our own game." Sartre welcomes this development. He agrees with Fanon that violent revolution teaches colonized people how to be human: "By their ever-present desire to kill us ... they have become men." He also believes this is ultimately good for Europeans: "We in Europe too are becoming decolonized." He means decolonization will change the mindset of Europeans: "The settler which is in every one of us is being savagely rooted out." These changes will enable colonizer and colonized alike to create "another story: the history of mankind."


Sartre notes Frantz Fanon's book "had not the slightest need of a preface." He is perhaps aware of the effect of a European preface to Fanon's book. It could seem as though a book by Fanon, "the native," needs the approval of an influential European. He claims he wrote the preface "to bring the argument to its conclusion." This conclusion is the decolonization of Europe, the process of having "the settler which is in every one of us ... savagely rooted out." He predicts this too will be a violent process, rather than just a shift in attitudes: "You will have to fight, or rot in concentration camps." The "you" Sartre addresses is Europe. His predictions have not been borne out, or not yet.

Sartre simplifies Fanon's analysis, perhaps too much so. The peasantry does emerge as "the revolutionary class." In the countryside the spark of violent resistance is spontaneously lit. However, Fanon shows this spark is not enough by itself. It is overly optimistic to say, as Sartre does, all the other classes in the colony "fall into line with the stand made by the rural masses." On the contrary, Fanon gives many examples of divisions between classes, and of groups "falling into line" with the settlers. The peasantry does need to be joined by the native intellectual and urban proletariat, Fanon shows. And it is true Fanon does not condemn any entire class as hopeless, except perhaps the class he calls the "national bourgeoisie." However, "the stand" made by the rural masses is only the beginning, Fanon argues.

Decolonization, in Fanon's definition, means replacing settlers with natives. This is described in Fanon's first chapter. The next part of the struggle is to change the society rather than simply shuffle around the personnel. Otherwise the result is "a simulacrum of phony independence" in which exploitation and domination continue.

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