Where I Stand 03/06/2016

I have, over the last few weeks, been reading about violence in general and revolutionary violence in particular.  This is largely due to a certain focus within my PhD on Albert Camus and his book The Rebel, but also because of the reoccurrence of the strange version of political violence in South Africa that is taking place there yet again. 

Perhaps the most enigmatic of this literature is Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.  I say this because it is a book filled with contradictions that largely, I suspect, arose from Fanon’s own fragmented and disparate experiences.  A colonial subject of Martinique Fanon fought in de Gaulle’s Free French Army that helped liberate France, he married a French woman, studied psychology in Lyon and ended up working in a hospital in colonial Algeria.  But these experiences would be qualified by his birth into a colonial society, his teacher Aimé Césaire, the racism he was to encounter in France and his participation in the de-colonial process in Algeria.

The book itself seems at times convinced by academic Hegelian theories, at other times by conflicting ideas that seem to be the result of his direct experience.  It always struck me as odd when reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Preface to the work that a psychologist could ever think that ‘violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.’

And that:

For the first days of revolt you must kill: to shoot down the European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy the oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man and a freeman; the survivor, for the first time he feels a national soil under his foot…. A child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity. We were men at his expense, he makes himself a man at ours: a different man, of higher quality.

But this is corroborated within Fanon’s text. As he says: ‘At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction.’  Of course much of this idea comes from Hegel’s small and confusing chapter on what is often referred to as the master/slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit.  That is to say that the idea that the historical relationship between the thesis of master (colonial) and the antithesis of slave (native) must be dialectically overcome/sublated/synthesised. As Kojeve suggests this synthesis involves violence. However, unlike Fanon, in Kojeve’s interpretation of the dialectical violence – the clash between thesis and antithesis – the thesis is not ‘killed’ but simply the master’s autonomy is destroyed leaving ‘him life and consciousness.’ (15)

Fanon’s violence towards synthesis however is not this, in many passages it refers to the killing of the Algerian pied noirs. And certainly in the local Algerian press Fanon clearly stated that all settlers were a target for the National Liberation Front (FLN).  However, for all of these bellicose insistences, what Hannah Arendt referred to as Fanon’s ‘rhetorical flourishes’, there is another side to Fanon.   Because all of his ‘in praise of violence’ against white French settlers should be mediated by two important facts.  One was that he was married to a French woman and that his call to kill all the French within the colonies was at least to a certain extent contained within a certain classification (broad though it may be).  The second and most importantly is the last chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorders.’ 

Here Fanon’s thought becomes bifurcated, split between the theoretical dialectical violence that will result in the ‘new history of Man’ and the actual violence of internecine war.  Fanon was after all a psychologist working in Algeria and as such he had dealt with cases involving both the freedom fighters as well as the colonial torturers.  In this chapter we see a side of Fanon without the rhetoric.  A man deeply invested in attempts to palliate the damaged pathologies of his patients on both sides of the liberation struggle. Both are, as he reveals, deeply scarred and traumatised by the violence.  But just how this violence is dissimilar to the cathartic synthesising violence he speaks of in other chapters is not explained.   

Of course much of Fanon’s theory, as he discusses, resulted from his disgust with the political developments within the decolonised countries whose ‘liberation’ resulted from negotiated withdrawals.  There, as he is at pains to discuss, the local corrupt bourgeoisies took control. Bourgeoisies who were more interested in retaining connections with the previous metropole than taking care of their own population, who they soon began to brutalise in order to retain power – here there are some stark analogies to be made between South Africa and Zimbabwe.  As a result, Fanon believed that only a cleansing war could expiate these political corruptions.  That is to say that the only way of ensuring a post-colonial world infected by corruption was for a ‘new Man’ to emerge out of the ashes of violence. A new Man who would be divested through the act of violence of their corrupt colonial identities.  But what Fanon fails to have considered is that, as von Clausewitz suggested, war is simply a continuation of politics through other means.  That is to say it is simply politics and that settlements through war and settlements through negotiations will have similar outcomes. As Hegel himself was to discover the supposed cleansing of the Napoleonic wars were merely a delusion.

To be sure Fanon, who died before Algerian independence, was not to see, as Stuart Hall said in an interview, that ‘what has happened in Algeria is precisely how the past outlived the revolution and has taken its revenge on the present.’  That is to say that violence cannot, in Sartre’s rather absurd formulation, heal the wounds that it has inflicted.  One simply needs to look at a recently published statistic in South Africa that states that 1 in 3 children in our country is affected by violence by the age of 17 to realise that violence far from being palliative is self-perpetuating.  There is a deep and tragic irony that Fanon’s wife, Josie, who lived in Algiers after Fanon’s death, is said to have committed suicide in 1989 as a direct result of the recurrence of FLN violence against the local population.  She is supposed to have said, shortly before killing herself, ‘the wretched of the earth again!’


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