Red Hot Cannonballs and Bloody Knives: Why Fanon Still Matters
From Jesse Brent
This past March, I attended a speech at the NYU Law School by Kathleen Cleaver, the law professor and former Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party. After a dialogue with two young activists, whom Cleaver cautioned against the effects of non-profits on political movements, Cleaver responded to questions from the audience. One student asked Cleaver which books had influenced her the most politically. She responded by saying that the official Black Panther Party Book List is available online, but the most important title for herself was The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. Another student asked if Lenin was an important influence for her. She responded with a simple “no.”
Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist and revolutionary philosopher from Martinique, who lived in Algeria during the country’s anti-colonial war against the French. Fanon joined the revolutionary movement and contributed to El Moudjahid and Résistance Algérienne, official publications of the FLN (National Liberation Front). He also treated patients, both revolutionaries and non-combatants, who suffered from PTSD after being tortured by the French army. Fanon’s writing incited and inspired revolutionaries around the world, including Cleaver and other members of the Black Panther Party. Indeed, along with Malcolm X, Fanon is the only writer listed twice on the Black Panther Party Book List that Cleaver mentioned.
Fanon vividly describes colonialism as a system of oppression and misery, which justifies land appropriation and economic exploitation through a racist ideology that denigrates the culture of the colonized. He also insists on the necessity of using violence to overthrow colonialism. For both of these reasons, Fanon remains one of the most relevant philosophers for today’s society, both in the United States and around the world.
Fanon minces no words in the opening chapter of his deservedly famous masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth. The chapter itself is called “On Violence” and Fanon writes, “In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives.” Though Algeria was one of many countries in the so-called “Third World” to gain independence in the mid-20th century, our world today remains thoroughly colonized. As Fanon points out, after independence, members of the local bourgeoisie replaced the role of foreign colonizers in many countries around the world, and resources remained in the hands of a small elite, rather than the population as a whole.
Many in the United States never consider that they are living in a colonial state. Yet not only does the United States continue to practice a blatant form of colonialism in Puerto Rico, resulting in the territory’s bankruptcy, but the United States is itself essentially a colony that has brutally oppressed its indigenous people through genocide and land appropriation. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn estimates that at the time of Columbus’s arrival in Hispaniola, 25 million people lived in North America. By 1844, fewer than 30,000 indigenous people remained east of the Mississippi. Fanon writes of the United States as “a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions.” While both liberals and conservatives today embrace patriotism and American exceptionalism, Fanon’s words remain true. America is exceptional, not for its virtues, but for its horrifying legacy of genocide and slavery, and its ongoing racism and imperialism.
Worldwide, neocolonialism is rampant in countries that are no longer officially colonies. As one recent Al Jazeera article pointed out, sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world of $41bn. Few people in countries with abundant natural resources actually benefit from those resources. At the same time, neoliberal economic policies, coordinated between national elites and multinational organizations like the IMF and World Bank, continue to encourage tourism and major development projects, while cutting down on education, healthcare and social services.
Fanon identifies the police officer or the soldier as “the official, legitimate agent, the spokesperson for the colonizer and the regime of oppression.” Around the world, cops continue to act as the enforcers of state power, colonialism and capitalism with virtually no accountability for their frequent murders of poor and otherwise marginalized citizens. Practically every day, stories such as the recent murder of a mentally ill man by the Tulsa Police demonstrate the fact that police departments do not protect and serve, but rather terrorize communities.
While America has always been fundamentally colonial, we have entered a particularly reactionary era, as our current president openly courted racist voters with a message of nostalgia for the bygone era of Jim Crow. Prominent alt-right personalities like Gavin McInnes proclaim their “Western chauvinism,” while maintaining ties with unabashed neo-Nazis. This “Western chauvinism” may sound less threatening than fascism, but as Fanon writes, “when the colonized hear a speech on Western culture they draw their machetes or at least check to see they are close to hand.” This is because the idea of Western “cultural superiority” reflects a racist worldview that dehumanizes non-white people and justifies their economic exploitation.
Fanon is also immensely relevant for his attack on bourgeois nonviolence. He introduces the concept by writing, “At the critical, deciding moment the colonialist bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence.” As anarchists ushered in the Trump era with smashed windows, a burning limo, and one punched Nazi, liberals have responded aghast to the attacks on property and violence against a man who calls for “peaceful ethnic genocide.” Many liberals responded to the punching of Richard Spencer by saying that this act of violence made anti-fascists no better than the Nazis they oppose, echoing the alt-right trolls who call antifa “the real Nazis.” While liberals rarely seem to care about drone strikes, ICE raids, or police brutality, they are horrified by a smashed Starbucks window. Just as it was at the time Fanon was writing, nonviolence remains a counterrevolutionary sham, favored by bourgeois elites, who have no interest in changing the oppressive system that they benefit from.
Fanon also wrote critically of the political “party machine,” which “tends to resist any innovation.” As liberals cling desperately to the fiction that the Democratic Party will save them, Fanon’s words ring more true than ever. The Democratic Party ran a candidate who would not offer a fifteen dollar minimum wage and could not even pretend to relate to working class Americans. As Fanon writes, “the unpreparedness of the elite, the lack of practical ties between them and the masses, their apathy and, yes, their cowardice at the crucial moment in the struggle, are the cause of tragic trials and tribulations.” We must put our hopes in ourselves and not in politicians if we have any chance of finding true liberation.
In one footnote in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon comments on the connection between colonialism and fascism. He quotes from his own article in Résistance Algérienne, commenting on the spread of fascist militia groups formed by French colonizers in Algeria. Fanon writes, “at the level of the individual and human rights what is fascism but colonialism at the very heart of traditionally colonialist countries?” Many of the horrific practices that are associated with fascism were first implemented against colonized people. This is why it is so important for anti-fascist organizing to also be anti-colonial. Struggles between water protectors and gas companies at Standing Rock are related to battles between anti-fascists and the alt-right in the streets of Berkeley and Portland. In both cases, the state sides against those fighting fascism and colonialism.
Fanon is stern in his appraisal of Europeans, but he does not he does not rule out the possibility for solidarity between the European working class and colonized people. He writes, “This colossal task, which consists of reintroducing man into the world, man in his totality, will be achieved with the crucial help of the European masses who would do well confess that they have often rallied behind the position of our common masters on colonial issues.” Fanon rejected Enlightenment philosophy as thoroughly hypocritical and empty. As he puts it, “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.” However, Fanon does not give up on humanity. He rather proposed a new form of humanism that is committed to revolutionary anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle.
In one of the most vivid sections of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes that the “salvation” of the Algerian people “lies in their solidarity, in recognizing their interests and identifying their enemies. The people understand that wealth is not the fruit of labor but the spoils from an organized protection racket. The rich no longer seem respectable men but flesh-eating beasts, jackals and ravens who wallow in the blood of the people.” Today, just as during the Algerian Revolution, any chance for revolutionary success depends on building bonds of solidarity between various communities and instilling consciousness of our common interest in the overthrow of capitalism and other forms of oppression. The more that people join together to support one another in struggles against capitalism, racism, colonialism, and fascism, the more prepared we will be to build a new and better society.
Jesse Brent is a writer and radio producer, currently living in Brooklyn. He recently completed a master’s thesis on cultural hybridity and liberation in contemporary Moroccan music, and is currently working on a new podcast about radical politics and underground music from around the world.
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