Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Alienation and Freedom 
by frantz fanon 
edited by jean khalfa and robert j. c. young 
translated by steven corcoran 
bloomsbury academic, 816 pages, $29.95

In the ferment of the present moment, with its surging floods of migrants and its ostensibly gratuitous but historically rooted violence, it often seems there is a voice missing in the babble of platitude and prevarication. That voice might warn of history and its legacies, of chickens come home to roost. It might ask what we thought was going to happen, and why we are surprised that actions have consequences across centuries. If such a voice were to be heard, it would as likely as not be the voice of Frantz Fanon, the only man capable of seeing to the heart of the age.

Fanon was born in French colonial Martinique in 1925. Having spent some time in France, he went to ­Algeria, where he became intimately involved in the War of Independence of the 1950s. Drawing on his work as a psychiatrist, Fanon showed how colonialism infects history, wounding colonizer and colonized. His life’s work might be summarized as the breathing of full life into Hegel’s master–slave dialectic, set out in Phenomenology of Spirit.

At the core of Fanon’s thinking is the idea that man is easily persuaded to take leave of himself, of his nature and personality and culture, and only with extreme difficulty finds his way back. This process of ­dislocation can occur under the force of the will to power, or it can occur from the experience of being looked upon or spoken to as though an animal or object.

Colonialism thus created two kinds of barbarism. One was the barbarism of those who became persuaded by the indictment of their alleged precolonial savagery that they ought to vacate their backward culture and embrace “civilization”; the other was the barbarism necessary to inflict this lie and make it stick. Fanon spoke with equal solicitousness to each party but found sympathy for only one: the put-upon wretch with his face beneath the boot of the planter.

The first thing the colonizer did, Fanon tells us, was to “plant deep in the mind of the native population the idea that before the advent of colonialism their history was one which was dominated by barbarism.” Colonization is something the native ultimately does to himself, having been persuaded of his own ­inadequacy. For this reason, freedom cannot be regained by negotiation, but only by a redemptive act. The violent occupation of lands and minds can be answered only with violence of the heart and hand.

For all its fury, Fanon’s writing is delivered in the style of a love letter—intimate and raw and burning with knowingness. The Wretched of the Earth is his love letter to Africa and its people, as though to a woman he seeks to convince to leave her violent, exploitative husband and come with him to a future that can be different in ways he cannot particularize but can promise in their essence because he and she—together—will become new actors making their own history. “We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began,” he writes. He tells her exactly what she has come to, what she has surrendered of herself, what trade-offs she has made, what tricks she has succumbed to. He lays it all bare; then he tells her how to set herself free.

Fanon’s remedy was a process of what he called “tearing away” from the influence of the colonizer. This was no mere physical act but a deep sundering of the mind from the hitherto seemingly stronger mind of the other, a reinvention rather than a rediscovery of self, because the self is no longer a certain thing, having been polluted and infected with alien impulses.

Fanon was aware, having looked into the minds of many of his own people, that this was not a straightforward matter. Shame, guilt, self-­hatred, all the pathologies colonialism inflicts tend to ensure that its nature remains hidden. And at the back of these syndromes is another: that ­colonialism, from the beginning, proposed itself as an unambiguously virtuous and constructive phenomenon. The colonizing nations claimed that what they brought to the outlying areas of the world was no less than civilization itself, and so everyone else ought to be thankful.

Nations and people colonized by great powers tend to become infantilized and enfeebled. They become mimics. They surrender not merely their political independence but also their existential independence. Most pathetic of all, they remain convinced that their condition is almost entirely their own fault, and that the best efforts of the colonizers have failed to rescue them from their indolence, inertia, and backwardness. And so, on the face of things, the colonizer’s assertions appear to be true: He did his best with his whip, but those he sought to assist have remained in the dark ages.

At the back of all this is another invisible phenomenon: an ideology of progress that holds there to be just one way of advancing into the future, the one best way. If that were the case, it would be obvious that at least the intentions of the colonists were virtuous. But of course it is bogus. What makes a particular civilization preeminent in its time is not the irrefutability of its ideas or achievements, but the power it has used to advance these at the expense of all others.

Alienation and Freedom is probably not an essential book for those wishing to understand Frantz Fanon. There are great things in it, but it is intimidatingly hefty, and reading it is like entering a gray warehouse of information. But there is much here of value. The book opens, for example, with the scripts of two plays written by Fanon as a young man. There are separate sections of his psychiatric and political writings, which make for an interesting contrast, and a wonderful section about Fanon’s personal library, complete with some of his marginal notes in the volumes found there.

I came across Fanon about twenty-­five years ago, when an Irish academic mentioned him in an article about ­Ireland. He used just a few phrases, but something in those quotations struck me as true. I sensed ­immediately that there might be in this man’s work a trove of insight about my own country, though he had never set foot on its soil.

Ireland was never, ­technically speaking, a colony of England, but it was colonized in all the ways Fanon ­diagnoses and ­condemns. It was robbed, starved, beaten, and tortured. It ­suffered slaughter and famine. It had its language destroyed, and came close to losing its faith. In many parts of the country, the ­indigenous culture was all but eradicated by the famines of the 1840s. Our music survived only patchily.

Our experience had strong similarities with those of many African countries, with one difference: Our skins and the colonists’ were the same color, subtly altering the nature of the master-slave relationship. In Ireland there was not individual slavery, but rather a whole people enslaved by another, their lives and loves disregarded in the service of men who believed themselves to exist on a higher level of the human.

After independence, a native ascendancy assumed the political, cultural, economic, and administrative roles of the colonizer. The colonial mentality continued. The Irish mind, though ostensibly freed, repressed those aspects of its culture it had been taught to despise. “Tearing away” from the colonist’s values never occurred. The colonial period is generally treated as a minor prang between an ass-cart and an English Land Rover at a shorted-out traffic light, both parties shaking hands and undertaking to do their own repairs. There is a complete unwillingness to acknowledge that the last 850 years may have imposed a psychic burden on the present.

If you look at the nature of Irish life, politics, economics, and culture today, you may begin to see a pattern: the rush, having achieved freedom, to enter another dependency by ­joining what is now the European Union; the disdain that exists in Ireland for our native music and language; the almost hysterical attempts to portray Ireland as the most liberal country in the world ever; the pride taken in the totalitarian empires of Facebook and Google cynically dodging taxes by taking Dublin as their European headquarters; the fake inter­nationalism that overrides Irish nationhood to serve the interests of globe-trotting elites.

All these are symptoms of the condition diagnosed by Fanon: dependency, mimicry, self-hatred, the loud and constant assertion of modern values masking the inability to stand against the world. Some 850 years after the Norman invasion, we continue to insist that we are not barbarous, that we are human. But still we wish, deep in our souls, to be accepted as the equals of our former masters, because only this will render us “civilized.”

Fanon came too late for Ireland, though it is doubtful that we would have listened had he come earlier, for the same ideas already existed half-formed in the work of ­Padraig Pearse, who led the Easter Rising of April 1916 and was executed a fortnight later in the most destructive act ever inflicted upon the Irish nation. Pearse, like Fanon, had understood the scale of the cultural reconstruction that must follow a snatched independence, but that knowledge drained away with his lifeblood in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol on May 3, 1916.

Pearse, like Fanon, was a philosopher and natural poet, and wrote several books of poems, short stories, and essays. Colonization was his great theme, too. He spoke of Ireland’s servitude using the word “slavery.” For Fanon this was a literal description; for Pearse it was metaphor.

Sometimes it seems that Pearse and Fanon are the same mind, the same man. In a series of essays written just before the 1916 rising, Pearse outlined in detail the specifications of true freedom and the process by which it would have to be attained. In “The Murder Machine,” about the English education system in Ireland, he described the colonial mechanism. It “aimed at the substitution for men and women with ‘Things.’” Many of those we regarded as people had been rendered mere things by this machine. “Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are for sale.” In Pearse, these understandings are inchoate, half-formed; in Fanon they are whole.

There is an important coda to be added to the history of Ireland’s relationship with colonization. The Irish experience was not all one-way traffic. We have been both hare and hound. Ireland was never an imperial nation, but it did play a central role in the colonial adventuring of other nations, supplying the missionaries whom Fanon encountered in Africa and repeatedly included in his denunciations. He believed the missionaries provided the moral alibi for those seeking to plunder and torture. It is not an implausible idea: that while we Irish may not have mounted our own occupations of the lands and minds of other peoples, we supplied many of the spiritual accomplices to the ambitions of others, providing tyranny with a gracing aspect. For us to say that what they carried with them—the gospel—was the truth is merely, to some African ears, a rephrasing of the notion of the colonizer’s one best way. Fanon would be quick to retort that it was not Africa’s way, and that that ought to be the end of it.

But there is more to the story than that. Fanon’s view of religion never overcame a central contradiction. Fanon characterizes the native as superstitious and primitive, using rhetoric very much like that of the colonialists he despises. In his haste to cast off the colonizer’s chains, he echoes the modernizing and ­progressive rhetoric that colonizers hurled at native superstition. He includes in the category of superstition the religion preached by the colonizers themselves.

In fact, Fanon’s secular-humanist worldview was shot through with a Christian sensibility that clearly had its roots in the French-Martinique society of his childhood. “If it is true that consciousness is a process of transcendence,” he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “we have to see too that transcendence is haunted by the problems of love and understanding. Man is a yes that vibrates to cosmic harmonies.” This is the voice of a believer, not an atheist.

His critics will respond that Fanon was not Christlike, that all that sulfuric incitement seems more than occasionally to vacate the love of justice that suffuses his work. And yet his frequent bellicosity, if seen ­objectively, can be described harmoniously with St. Augustine’s concept of the just war waged “to put to death ­wicked men.”

Since Fanon’s death, a great change has taken place in the postimperial picture. It is doubtful that Fanon in 1961 anticipated that the final collision and conflagration he was announcing might play out at the heart of the West. Yet this is now unfolding, in two unexpected ways. In the first, the pattern of colonialism has been unleashed in reverse through the waves of immigrants that have flooded Europe since the removal of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. At the same moment—­apparently coincidental with the first, though perhaps not—the half-adult descendants of the colonists have gone into revolt in their home territories, denouncing their own antecedents as war criminals, demanding the demolition of monuments to the colonial ­adventurers, and speaking darkly of the need for restitution. The two phenomena are connected by a faintly acknowledged guilt that infects the culture of the West in a manner astonishingly resonant of Fanon’s explication of the effects of colonialism on the African native: self-hatred in reverse gear, tearing its way to a comprehensive undoing.

Meanwhile, Europe’s old colonizing instinct today confines itself to home territory, where it takes the form of a new elitism wrapped in ­ideology. The upper layers adopt pious and amnesiac positions on the role their own progressive ideas played in colonization, while imposing radical social policies on their “deplorable” fellow citizens at home. It is as though the colonial muscle, seeking exercise, has decided to reform not foreigners but the recalcitrant populations at home. Hence gay marriage, gender theory, abortion, secularism, and mass immigration. Opposition to any of these marks one as a savage.

In a recent First Things article, a review of books concerning the political shifts in Eastern Europe, Ryszard Legutko noted the tendency within Europe for the formerly colonial powers to try to enforce these agendas on recalcitrant former communist nations like Poland and Hungary, which have defended Christian values against the new moral revolutions emanating from the former great powers. “This,” he noted with some irony, “has turned these countries into the great blackguards of the Western world, criticized and bullied by American and European politicians, journalists, academics, artists, film stars, and pop stars.” These tendencies, Legutko believes, are leading to the consolidation of conservative forces in Eastern Europe.

Elsewhere in Europe, things look much worse. Descendants of colonial adventurers seek to dodge responsibility by reinventing themselves as the tolerant and inclusive patrons of the downtrodden. But there are problems. One is that the reproductive reluctance of these elites, together with their penchant for abortion, ensures that they are already well-advanced in the process of self-elimination. A demographic crisis now grips Europe, assuming the appearance of a mass suicide. At the same time, the colonial chickens are coming home to claim their inheritance: great waves of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and demanding their birthright as the sons and daughters of the slaves whose stolen labor enriched the nations of Europe.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his incendiary preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, seemed momentarily to envisage our present, before dismissing it as fanciful. “It’s our turn to tread the path, step by step, which leads down to native level. But to become natives altogether, our soil must be occupied by a formerly colonized people and we must starve of hunger. This won’t happen.”

It shows signs of happening now, as so graphically outlined by Douglas Murray in The Strange Death of Europe. “By the end of the lifespans of most people currently alive,” Murray somberly predicts, “Europe will not be Europe and the peoples of Europe will have lost the only place in the world we had to call home.”

From the perspective of the wronged, the crimes of Europe cannot be assuaged by apologies or compensation, only by vengeance. Here, guilt is a useless emotion. The student revolutionaries of today, fifty years on from ’68, seem to overlook the fact that, once the pursuit of retribution gets into stride, they themselves will be up against the wall. In time their guilt will evaporate; their high feelings, too. As an alternative to placing his head upon the block, the white man will rediscover in himself the resolve to survive and the wherewithal to defend himself. A bloody contest will be the result.

For all his avoidance of religious idioms, Fanon—like ­Padraig Pearse—saw the fight for freedom in spiritual terms: the total ­freedom of man rather than a political or territorial freedom. His project from the beginning was the resuscitation of the human soul, buried deep under the layers of mimicry and self-hatred imposed by the settler tyrant. To a large extent, his reservations about the Church were rooted in the particularities of Algeria, to which the colonizer took a kidnapped Christ.

In Ireland, an interesting and a rather different dynamic emerged. The Church, being native, became a rebel church, its priests and nuns siding with the people, in some ­instances going down in history as patriots in their own right, like Fr. Murphy, the hero of Vinegar Hill, celebrated in the stirring ballad “Boolavogue.” It was only post-­independence that elements of the Church settled in with the new establishment that, lacking Pearse’s understanding of the psychodynamics of freedom, proceeded to run Ireland as though nothing much needed to change.

Pearse and Fanon sang from the same hymn sheet, but in different languages: Pearse in the language of freedom expressed as a faith in absolute reality, Fanon in the language of existential freedom avoiding mention of an explicit point of origin or destination. Both men had been born and raised as Catholics, and it is plain from their respective writings that neither was oblivious to the meaning of the fact that Christ suffered violence at the hands of a colonial power and its native quislings. Tearing himself away from that malign relationship—albeit with a divine passivity—he called us to do likewise.

Both Pearse and Fanon believed that, for us in our human ­inadequacy, tearing away sometimes requires more direct methods. Otherwise, as Fanon noted, human beings could allow themselves to be subjected to a version of Christianity that required acquiescence in their own enslavement. This cannot be right or true. There are passages of the Bible in which slavery is regarded with ambivalence, but the New Testament leaves little wiggle room, especially in the words of Christ as relayed by St. Paul the Apostle. In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul tells us: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:31–5:1).

To attain the kingdom of the Lord, Paul confides, the former slave and his master must be reconciled as brothers (Philem. 16), which might be deemed the ultimate end of all political endeavor, one most urgent during the present confrontation between Europe and the Third World. Absent the realization of such brotherhood, of which Frantz Fanon has been the greatest modern prophet, the world faces imminently a Calvary from which only the former master or his former slave will emerge to know any kind of freedom.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.

Photo by Pacha J. Willka via Creative Commons. Image cropped.