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The Prophet of October 7?

Frantz Fanon’s defenders try to distance him from the of ethos of violence he advocated, even as they embrace his anti-colonialist rhetoric to promote anti-Zionism.

· 11 min read
Frantz Fanon and university Palestine supporters
Getty and Wikimedia Commons.

A review of The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Life of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz; 464 pages; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 2024).

Most observers deemed the Hamas attack on October 7 to be a shocking and brutal orgy of torture, murder, rape, and abduction. But not a Somali-American writer named Najma Sharif, who tweeted, “What did y’all think decolonisation meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers.” That tweet was liked by over 100,000 people, including a Washington Post journalist.

Intentionally or not, Sharif’s tweet recalled decolonial writer Frantz Fanon’s observation that “de-colonization is not a metaphor.” On American campuses during the 1960s, Fanon became a revolutionary icon in the mold of Che Guevara, and his gnomic aphorisms (“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World”; “the black is not a man” but someone who resides in a “zone of nonbeing”) were solemnly repeated by radical students, some of whom later became tenured American professors. 

In the Yale Review, professor of English Feisal G. Mohamed provided a more expansive version of Fanonism in response to the events of October 7. He began by allowing that: “Even if some form of violent resistance to the Occupation was inevitable, that did not make these particular attacks excusable: Hamas and other militant groups chose to target civilians, and to do so in monstrous ways, and we knew we must be unequivocal in saying that such acts are always wrong.” 

Nevertheless, he added:

In unpacking [the] logic [of occupation], and its cycles of violence, it is hard not to be reminded of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Unlike capitalist society, which masks the imposition of power in all sorts of sneaky ways, colonial government, Fanon tells us, uses a “a language of pure violence.” The agent of that government “does not alleviate oppression or mask domination. He displays and demonstrates them with the clear conscience of the law enforcer, and brings violence into the homes and minds of the colonized subjects.” The colonist “fabricated and continues to fabricate” the colonial subject and derives his “validity, i.e. his wealth, from the colonial system.” Given these qualities, the path to decolonization is also always and necessarily violent. Fanon is not necessarily advocating anticolonial violence so much as he is describing a dialectic: the colonial agent’s violence “fabricates” a colonial subject who then deploys violence in the cause of decolonization. A political order grounded in bare force sets the terms of resistance accordingly.

Further evidence of Fanon’s continuing importance to activism was provided by an October 9 statement published by student groups at Columbia University that also quoted him: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” 

What would Fanon himself make of all this, were he alive to see it? In a new biography, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Life of Frantz Fanon, Adam Shatz does his best to transform his radical subject into a humanitarian dedicated to helping the poor and the persecuted. He admits that Fanon’s ideas have “been reduced to violence” just as Marx’s ideas have been reduced to class struggle, but he nevertheless objects to “vulgar readings” of them. This biography is intended as a corrective. Such a sympathetic makeover from this author is hardly surprising. Shatz is the US editor of the London Review of Books and an anti-Zionist polemicist who believes that Israel is “the world’s last settler-colonial state.”

Frantz Omar Fanon was born into a middle-class family in 1925, and he grew up in the French colonial port city of Martinique in the West Indies. “Je suis français,” were the first words he wrote. He identified as French and did not initially even perceive himself as black. After France surrendered to Nazi Germany during World War II, Fanon left Martinique to fight with the Free French forces in Europe. He remained in Europe after the war, where he experienced racism. Rejection by the nation he had fought for helped to shape his emerging political consciousness.

Shatz provides an absorbing account of Fanon’s early personal life and intellectual odyssey, including his training as a psychiatrist and his clinical work at hospitals in France, Algeria, and Tunisia. We are told about Fanon’s relationship with French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and with radical African leaders like Patrick Lumumba. Fanon became fascinated by Négritude—a political movement that emphasized African values and heritage—and then Marxism. In his first book Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon criticized black men who date white women, although most of his own female partners were white.

Frantz Fanon at a press conference during a writers' conference in Tunis
Frantz Fanon at a press conference during a writers' conference in Tunis, 1959. Wikimedia.

It was Fanon’s experience in Algeria that led him to write the book for which he is still best known: The Wretched of the Earth (1961). That work transformed him into an international revolutionary figure—a celebrity of sorts—and this helped to define him as one of the Third World’s preeminent intellectuals and activists before the term “Third World” was coined. Just as Fanon spoke better French than the French, notes Shatz, as a revolutionary, he became “more Algerian than the Algerians.” He spent the most famous years of his life as a propagandist for the National Liberation Front (FLN), an Algerian terror group that targeted soldiers and civilians as it fought for independence from France. At one point, Fanon even joined an undercover commando unit to help establish a Saharan route into Algeria—part of a grand strategy to build military power across the desert that would “hurl a continent against the ramparts of colonial power.”

The fighting in Algeria radicalized Fanon. His writing about the colony and the meaning and utility of political violence was militant. “At the individual level,” he wrote, “violence is cleansing. It rids the colonized of his inferiority complex, of his passive and despairing attitude.” In other words, killing colonizers was not only tactically expedient, it was also therapeutic for the colonized. “The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence,” he wrote. What the colonized needed was not concessions granted by the master but “quite literally the death of his master.” 

Fanon, Shatz notes, understood that: 

Algerians were acquiring a taste of their own power now that the FLN had taken arms on their behalf. Violence provided, he thought, a kind of shock therapy for the colonized mind—an exhilarating rush of self-confidence and energy that exploded the North African syndrome of depression and helplessness.

Cleansing; liberation; exhilaration; shock therapy. On September 30, 1956, the FLN launched a campaign of terror in Algiers, targeting establishments frequented by the European community, including a Milk Bar at Place Bugeaud. The bombs were placed by three Algerian women, dressed in European clothes for the occasion, and they flirted coquettishly with the soldiers as they passed through the checkpoints. Here is how Fanon celebrated the role of women in Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle: 

Carrying revolvers, grenades, hundreds of false identity cards or bombs, the unveiled Algerian woman moves like a fish in the Western waters. The soldiers, the French patrols, smile at her as she passes, compliments on her looks are heard here and there, but no one suspects that her suitcases contain the automatic pistol which will presently mow down four of five members of one of the patrols.

Fanon’s celebration of Algerian female empowerment rings hollow when one compares it to the attitude he displayed towards women elsewhere. He struck his wife in public, and in Black Skin, White Masks, he speculated that white women may in fact wish to be raped by black men: “Basically, does this fear of rape not itself cry out for rape?” he wondered. “Just as there are faces that ask to be slapped, can one not speak of women who ask to be raped?” 

The Return of the Progressive Atrocity
It is the responsibility of Western activists to know who and what they support, and to separate themselves—openly and decisively—from programs and regimes that are predicated on violence and repression.

In his masterpiece A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962), the historian Alistair Horne describes the horrific scenes at the Milk Bar after the blast, where three civilians died and 12 others—including children—lost limbs. These were the actual consequences of the “exhilarating rush of self-confidence and energy” that Fanon so admired. One of the female terrorists, Zohra Drif, insisted that the European café patrons weren’t civilians but “colonizers,” their “offensive carefree attitudes” in painful contrast to those of the 80,000 Muslims then residing in the “open-air prison” of the Algiers Casbah. Then it was the Casbah. Today it is Gaza. 

Shatz acknowledges that Fanon justified acts of violence against civilians, including Algerians. He tried to conceal the gruesome massacre of 300 Algerian civilians supportive of a rival group to the FLN, and he helped to cover up the murder of his friend by rivals within the FLN’s leadership. But Shatz also suggests that Fanon’s attitude towards violence was more nuanced than his critics allow. Although Fanon believed that violence against European settlers in Algeria could be tactically useful, Shatz writes, he warned that it could not form the basis for a political strategy. In contemporary parlance, then, Fanon may have belonged to the “moderate” wing of the anti-colonial struggle.

A photo of Frantz Fanon and his medical team at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeri
Frantz Fanon and his medical team at the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital in Algeria, where he worked from 1953 to 1956. Wikimedia.

Still, Fanon rejected the position advocated by the Algerian-born philosopher Albert Camus, who wanted to see reconciliation between Algerian Muslims and Europeans in an integrated Algeria that was part of France. Camus sympathized with the anti-colonial struggle of Algeria’s Muslims and even helped secure the release of FLN prisoners. But he was repelled by Fanon’s rationalizations of FLN terrorism, and unlike Fanon, he remained loyal to the community of Europeans in Algeria. “I have always denounced terrorism,” Camus famously said. “I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly in the streets of Algiers, for example, and which one day could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”

The notion of rising Third World nationalism may have made some kind of sense against the postwar backdrop of collapsing European empires. But Fanon’s romantic dream of a Global South triumphing over the decaying North and erecting new independent, democratic, and progressive states produced a nightmare instead. 

Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed during the fight for decolonization, which was probably not the kind of therapeutic exercise Fanon had in mind. The Algerian War of Independence ended in 1962, but three years later, Algeria’s authoritarian first president—FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella—was deposed in a military coup. The dictatorship that replaced him routinely employed torture, surveillance, and violent repression. With the rise of radical Islam, not much was left of Fanon’s dream of political rights for women—or anyone else—in Algeria.

Fanon didn’t live to see any of that. In 1961, a year before the French abandoned Algeria, he died of leukemia at the age of 36 in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. The sworn enemy of the colonial West accepted help from the CIA to move to the US and receive treatment there.

Shatz has told a Ha’aretz journalist that he doesn’t know if Fanon would have supported the October 7 massacre. The point is moot, but since Fanon never met a murderous militant he didn’t like, it’s plausible that Shatz is simply being coy in his judgment. He does, after all, remark that Hamas’s terror operation on October 7 was a “classic example of Fanonian struggle.” And readers of Fanon are left in no doubt that he believed attacks on civilians to be the “logical consequence” of colonial oppression. In a world divided into the colonizer and the colonized, Fanon believed that civilians on the side of the former must forfeit their humanity. “Every Frenchman in Algeria,” Fanon claimed, “is at the present time an enemy soldier.”

In the same spirit, two academics wrote an oped for the Middle East Eye after October 7, in which they maintain that it is unreasonable to expect Palestinians to condemn Hamas and its atrocities:

Since the unprecedented events of 7 October, many have turned for guidance and inspiration to the anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon, and with good reason. In [The] Wretched of the Earth, penned amid the crucible of Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle, Fanon famously described the colony as a world cut in two, a Manichaean world of good and evil, its geographical division established and upheld by pure violence and little else.

His description is brutally apt for contemporary Palestine, and even more so the open-air prison camp of Gaza. And so is his oft-cited insistence that decolonisation is an inescapably violent affair: colonial violence has been pumped mercilessly into Gaza for decades. At some point, like a balloon, it can only explode.

These paragraphs implicitly justify the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians, including peace activists. You may be a left-leaning peacenik, but you are also an occupier so you will get what’s coming to you. For, as Fanon argued, “the colonized life can only materialize from the rotting corpse of the colonist.” And like these academics who are weary of being asked to condemn Hamas, Fanon became fed up with “intellectual friends, who claim to be humanists.” Such people were horrified by the FLN’s violence, he complained, and they criticized his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle.

There can be little doubt that Fanon’s writing influenced and radicalized Palestinian nationalism. Shatz reminds us that the first Arabic translations of Fanon’s work, which appeared in Beirut’s bookshops in 1963, helped to shape the emerging Palestinian nationalist movement. In his 1981 memoir, My Home, My Land, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) deputy leader Abu Iyad (the nom de guerre of Salah Khalaf) writes that Fanon taught him that “only a people who doesn’t fear the guns and tanks of the enemy is capable of fighting the revolution to a finish.”

“Abu Iyad,” Shatz writes, “knew that the PLO could never defeat Israel on the battlefield, but he hoped that the armed struggle ‘could rally the masses to the people’s movement we were trying to create.’” In 1968, Palestinian fighters defended the Jordanian town of Karameh against a raid by the Israeli army; they held their ground and even managed to kill two dozen Israeli soldiers. Before the battle, the PLO’s largest faction, Fatah, had 2,000 members; three months later, it had 15,000. 

“In a phrase that might have been lifted from The Wretched of the Earth, Yasser Arafat remarked just after Karameh, that the armed struggle had transformed Palestinians from downcast refugees into ‘aroused fighters,’” writes Shatz. The PLO’s target was not so much the Israeli enemy “as the wounded Palestinian psyche; violence was a collective therapy, a way to create the ‘new man,’ to forge a nation, and to announce the existence of the Palestinian people on the world stage.” And unsurprisingly, the most ardent champion of Fanon’s writing was the Palestinian-American literary critic and postcolonial theorist Edward Said, who joined the PLO not long after the 1968 Battle of Karameh and became one of Arafat’s advisors.

Were Fanon alive today, he would more likely than not have argued that denouncing Palestinian violence is like asking them to passively accept their oppression, reflecting the so-called “false equivalence of the colonized and the colonizer.” Interestingly, the Jewish-French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann endorsed Fanon’s views on violence and supported the Algerian anti-colonial struggle. He argued that Jews remade themselves as a people by taking up arms and fighting their oppressors. Zionism demonstrated that only by using force could oppressed people win their liberty.

But, as one columnist put it, “if Israel is really a society of settler colonialist villains inhabiting a stolen land, why shouldn’t the left side with those Palestinian activists who don’t think Jews deserve any place in the glorious future achieved through the revolutionary struggle of the dispossessed.” Fanon would no doubt have said the same. For him, the fact that dead Israelis—the civilians, the families, the children—were “occupiers” of somebody else’s land was enough to make their killings defensible, laudable, and perhaps even therapeutic.

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