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

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.

The pre-sale for Dr. Bones’ new book, “Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World” ends 30 June!

Anarchism and Kabbalah

A Reflection On Walter Benjamin & Alejandro Jodorowsky, from Jesse Brent

Today, more often than not, people who have heard of Kabbalah associate the mystical branch of Judaism with celebrities like Madonna, Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher. Like other forms of mysticism, Kabbalah has been co-opted by capitalists and marketed as a new age fad for rich people (especially by the opportunistic charlatans of the Kabbalah Centre). However, this capitalist bastardization is a direct contradiction of the essential message of Kabbalah.

In Kabbale: Vie Mystique et Magie, a book about the history of Kabbalah in Morocco, Haïm Zafrani argues that Kabbalah is revolutionary because it treats the sacred text of the bible with “total liberty”, directly opposing orthodox readings of the bible. Moreover, Zafrani demonstrates the anti-aristocratic and egalitarian spirit of Kabbalah, quoting from the Zohar, the preeminent Kabbalistic text: “Take your money and distribute it to the poor and to the orphans.”

In fact, there is a strong affinity between the mysticism of Kabbalah and the revolutionary politics of anarchism, demonstrated in the works of the philosopher Walter Benjamin and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History and Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain are startlingly relevant for our current moment and the conflict between fascism.

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, while attempting to escape from the Nazis. Theses was his last major work before killing himself, and it offers some of the best advice that has ever been written on confronting fascism. Benjamin writes, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” Rather than call for a return to the liberal norm, Benjamin recognized that any effective response to fascism must radically overthrow the edifices of bourgeois respectability on which fascism grows and flourishes.

In one of the most famous passages from Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin uses a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus to write about what he calls the Angel of History, who “sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” This catastrophe is “that which we call progress.” Benjamin thus fundamentally calls into question all of “Western civilization,” which the Nazis saw themselves as the inheritors and indeed the culmination of.

Benjamin is pointing out that the rise of fascism and the Holocaust is not an anomaly, but part of a long chain of oppression, as “progress,” a term that has always been used to justify capitalism, depends on exploitation, slavery, and colonialism. Directly preceding this passage, Benjamin quotes from his friend, Gerhard Scholem, a scholar of Kabbalah. In an article called “Walter Benjamin, the Kabbalah, and Secularism,” Kam Shapiro argues that through Scholem, Kabbalistic mysticism became a profound influence on Benjamin’s philosophy, both in terms of form and content. In fact, Kabbalah, surrealism, and anarchism were all significant influences on Benjamin’s philosophy. Despite being more often associated with Marxism, Benjamin expressed a great respect and admiration for anarchist philosophy. In an essay from 1929 called Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Benjamin writes, “Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom.”

Other authors have pointed out how Benjamin’s ideas about theology, revolution, and class struggle are infused with anarchist thinking. In “Anarchist All the Way Down: Walter Benjamin’s Subversion of Authority in Text, Thought and Action,” James R. Martel writes,

“Benjamin is perhaps unique in that he covers all the bases, he engages in various dimensions of anarchism in such a way that they all correspond. These elements work together to give us a model for anarchism that is, to use his own words once again, “useless for the purposes of fascism.” This is a model that cannot be coopted because it engages only in failure, only in the certainty that human actors are radically on their own and must make their political and legal judgments accordingly.”

These three influences on Benjamin’s writing style and philosophy–Jewish mysticism, surrealism, and anarchism–converge in their rejection of Enlightenment values of so-called “rationality” and “progress.” Unlike fascists who exalted mythical ideas of national pride and culture, Benjamin used anarchist and Kabbalist ideas as a basis for rejecting “tradition” in favor of an avant-garde form of humanism. As Shapiro writes, “Benjamin not only contemplated the dissolution of cultural traditions but also undertook to reassemble their fragments in new configurations. He also suggested that modern subjects might learn to take part in collective acts of assembly, generating new habits and meanings. He explicitly set this task against the cultural restoration promised by the Nazis.”

Still from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain

Surrealism, mysticism and anarchism also converge in the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean-French director of Jewish descent, who, in proper anarchist style, sparked a full-scale riot when his debut film, Fando y Lis premiered at the 1968 Acapulco film festival. Jodorowsky is an avowed anarchist, who is quoted by Ben Cobb in the book Anarchy and Alchemy, as saying, “The slogan of anarchy is ‘Neither God Nor Master.’ But I only apply this to the external world. In the depths of my spirit, I have made anarchy my ‘Internal God and Master.’” In his autobiographical film The Dance of Reality from 2013, Jodorowsky’s youngest son Adán plays a character called Anarchist.

Jodorowsky’s third film The Holy Mountain, which premiered at Cannes in 1973, is an astonishing masterpiece that features many direct references to Kabbalah, as well as other forms of mysticism, such as tarot and alchemy. In an interview with Ilan Stevens, Jodorowsky says that he was initiated by Kabblah experts after first studying tarot and learning about the 19th century French occultist Eliphas Levi, who practiced both tarot and Kabbalah.

Like Benjamin, Jodorowsky used mysticism and surrealism to comment on fascism, which he saw as inextricably linked to the history of colonization. In one classic scene from Holy Mountain, the “Great Toad and Chameleon Circus” performs “The Conquest of Mexico.” One of the circus ringleaders wears a bow tie and top hat with a swastika on it. The performance takes place on an elaborate model of Aztec pyramids with horned lizards dressed in bright Aztec clothing. They are bombarded by giant toads, dressed in silver armor and brown robes like Spanish conquistadors and monks. The invasion turns into a bloodbath, as huge streams of blood flow down the pyramids, which are eventually blown into pieces. The scene begins with the sound of pan flutes and transitions, as the toad conquistadors invade, into a Nazi marching song.

Jodorowsky connects fascism not only to colonialism, but to modern capitalism, organized religion, and state power. The title of The Holy Mountain refers to a mythical mountain, to which the most powerful people from each planet set off to in order to find the secret of eternal life. One of the mountains Jodorowsky references when he introduces the Holy Mountain is the “Kabbalistic mountain of San Juan de la Cruz,” a reference to Ascent of Mount Carmel, the spiritual treatise by Saint John of the Cross, a Christian Kabbalist from a converso (descendants of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity) family. Among the planetary representatives is Axon (Richard Rutowsky), the chief of police of Neptune, who castrates his followers, collecting their testicles in a collection of 1000 jars. After castrating one boy, he hands him “the holy book” and tells him to “learn to believe in me.” Axon’s scene culminates in his police force attacking student protesters, with colored scarves and birds flying out of bullet wounds.

Jodorowsky represents the brutal inhumanity of capitalist logic through the character of Lut (Luis Lomelí), an architect from Pluto. Lut remarks, “A man doesn’t need a home, all he needs is a shelter. If we can sell him on the idea of a shelter, we can make millions. A worker will come here only to sleep; he won’t need electricity or water. He won’t have to cook; we’ll condition him to eat at the factory.” Jodorowsky also connects capitalism to authoritarian state power through Berg (Nicky Nichols), financial adviser to the president on the planet Uranus. Berg reports to the president: “to save the country’s economy, we must eliminate four million citizens in the next five years.”

Ultimately, Jodorowsky presents an anarchistic message in opposition to fascism. Jodorowsky’s own character, The Alchemist, who has organized the journey to the Holy Mountain, reveals this message to The Thief (played by Horacio Salinas), a character who accompanies the more powerful characters on their journey to the Holy Mountain. Earlier in the film, The Alchemist tells The Thief about these powerful characters: “They are thieves like you, but on another level.” As the film concludes, Jodorowsky tells The Thief to leave behind the quest for eternal life and instead return with the two characters who have devotedly followed him on the journey, a prostitute (Ana de Sade) and an ape: “Forget the summits, reach eternity through love. Return to your country. I leave you my tower and my alchemical rooms. This is your family and your people. Change the world.” Rather than turning his shit into gold (as the Alchemist teaches the Thief how to do earlier in the movie) or seeking eternal life, Jodorowsky is telling The Thief and viewers of The Holy Mountain to change the brutality, oppression, and coldheartedness of the capitalist, statist world that surrounds them–which he connects to both the legacy of colonialism and the ever-present danger of fascism.

In the era of Trump, Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History and Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain are quite relevant for their powerful reflections on the destructive force of fascism and its connection to colonialism and capitalism. Unlike the Kabbalah peddled by the phony capitalists of the Kabbalah Centre, Kabbalah, as it is represented by Benjamin and Jodorowsky, provides a mystical view of the universe that directly opposes orthodoxy, inequality, and injustice. This makes Kabbalah a natural companion to anarchism and opponent to capitalism and fascism.

Jesse Brent

Jesse Brent is a writer and radio/podcast producer, who lives in Brooklyn. He is currently working on a master’s thesis on cultural hybridity and liberatory politics in contemporary Moroccan music.

There’s more about Walter Benjamin and anarchism in A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.