Summary: Interview with Peter Hudis highlights the guiding threads in the thought and activity of Frantz Fanon as a humanist and anti-racist beacon in the battle of ideas and the struggle for an alternative to capitalism. Also addresses contradictions within Marxist-Humanism in the US. Orig. appeared in The Brotherwise Dispatch, Dec. 2016-Feb. 2017–Editors
Brotherwise Dispatch – In the introduction to your latest work, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades, you claim that “no sooner do new voices arise against the dehumanization that defines contemporary capitalism than they risk being subsumed by religious fundamentalist terrorism and the reactionary response to it by the Western powers.” In what sense does this “cul de sac”, as you aptly term it, function towards “maintaining bourgeois social and ideological hegemony”?
Peter Hudis – Many forces are opposed to one or another aspect of capitalism, imperialism, or globalization, but that does not mean they pose a liberatory alternative to any of them. The Soviet Union and Maoist China surely opposed Western capitalism, but they did so from the vantage point of promoting a totalitarian state-capitalist system that used “socialist” terminology while divesting it of any real content. And the mullahs who took power in Iran following the 1979 revolution surely opposed imperialism—but from a counter-revolutionary standpoint, as soon became clear enough from the regime’s vicious repression of Marxists, feminists, and national minorities such as the Kurds. And today, when bourgeois society may well be facing the end of globalization as we have known it, numerous rightwing currents—the Trump phenomenon among them—are attacking free trade agreements, lifting of tariff barriers, etc., but from a completely racist and nationalist standpoint.
Do these reactionary forms represent any kind of political opening, even if they weaken, in some material sense, the forces they oppose? No, because they only make it easier for the ruling powers to maintain their ideological hegemony. This is because it simply makes it easier for them to say—“well, you may not find what we are doing that much to your liking…but look at THOSE folks who are even worse!” Given the virtual absence of a clear, comprehensive, comprehensible, and viable alternative to existing capitalist society coming from the Left, it is almost a given that reactionary opponents of the existing order will end up strengthening the ideological—and ultimately, the material—power of bourgeois society.
Two examples should suffice: First, attacks by Islamic fundamentalists pose no serious, existential threat to bourgeois society but instead play directly into its hands. Of course, at one time the major capitalist powers supported and armed fundamentalist tendencies—when they proved useful in clearing the field (quite literally!) of genuine leftist and radical forces. “Secular” bourgeois society and religious extremism may be opposites, but the history of the 20th century shows rather plainly that they are not absolute opposites. Furthermore, once the fundamentalists turned on the hand that once fed them by attacking the imperialist metropole, their actions provided exactly what contemporary capitalism desired—an endless against this new Other that could be used to distract the attention of the masses from their deteriorating conditions of life and labor. Once the USSR was no longer around, the Western powers faced a kind of crisis, insofar as it raised the possibility that citizens of countries like the U.S. would now pay closer attention to the internal defects of their societies. The “war against Islamic terrorism” provided exactly what they were looking for by once again turning eyes outward—on the external enemy—or inward, on immigrants residing in the U.S. who supposedly threaten it. I am NOT suggesting that this was planned out and arranged by the U.S. and the European powers (such conspiracy theories have no basis). Islamic fundamentalism has deep, objective roots and is not a mere product of the actions of the major powers. But every time the Islamists kill innocent civilians and wreck havoc upon society, they make it easier for the powers that be to distract the masses from focusing on the real source of their distress. And, needless to say, it makes it easier for the capitalist state to give free reign to military, police, and surveillance forces to reign in the genuine forms of opposition to the system.
Second, no one can doubt that the present Israeli government is the most reactionary that country has ever had, but would Netanyahu be in power today if it were not for the misguided actions of suicide bombers and the actions undertaken by Hamas since it came to power in the Gaza Strip? Here too the history of the region mirrors the first example, above: Israel initially helped Hamas’s rise to prominence in the Palestinian movement by enabling it to obtain arms and other resources, on the grounds that doing so would divide and weaken the Palestinian movement. Hamas of course responded by taking on the Israelis (at least to a degree), and there is little doubt it would win elections in the West Bank today if Abbas actually permitted a democratic election. But does Hamas’ fundamentalist, misogynist, and authoritarian politics weaken Netanyahu’s hand or strengthen it? It is not hard to see that the answer is the latter. Netanyahu needs Hamas, just as he needs Islamic fundamentalism as a whole, otherwise his own ability to maintain political hegemony will come into question.
Given these realities, one has to ask why some on the Left (or who at least some who claim some relation to it) adopt the completely absurd position of acting as if the enemy of their enemy is their friend in making excuses for, or downplaying the crimes of, religious fundamentalist terrorism? The same can be asked in regard to their support for secular forces opposed to the U.S., such as Syria’s Assad—even though as of this writing he is producing a new (and far more severe) version of Guernica in his (and Russia’s) inhumane destruction of the city of Aleppo. I believe Kierkegaard provides some insight on this question, in Fear and Trembling: “Not only in the commercial world but in the realm of ideas as well, our age is holding a veritable clearance sale. Everything is had so dirt cheap that it is doubtful whether in the end anyone will bid.” Hegel earlier expressed a similar sentiment in the Phenomenology of Spirit: “By the little that now satisfies Spirit we can measure the extent of its loss.” Many leftists can be “bought” rather cheaply nowadays if the best they can come with as potential allies is Putin, Assad, or some fundamentalist (when the latter happens to aim their guns on France, Germany, or the U.S., that is). But WHY do they allow themselves to be bought so cheaply? I believe it is because they have essentially lost confidence in the ability of the masses within the industrially developed West to transform society in a liberatory direction. They have “lost,” as Hegel might say, any confidence in the self-certainty of the Subject’s actuality, and therefore accommodate to whatever appears in the market place of ideas—even if it is thoroughly reactionary in nature.
BD – How would you describe the philosophical tension between the existential liberationist orientation of Fanon’s work and the discursive trajectory of “today’s social constructivists and postmodernists”?
PH – I would not call this a “tension” as much as an opposition. There has been important work done by some postcolonial theorists, and I would be the last one to reject their insights and contributions tout court. However, we must keep in mind that postcolonial theory arose from a radically different context than the one that characterized Fanon’s life and work. I am not simply referring to the limits of an academic discipline as compared to Fanon’s work as a hands-on militant engaged in actual revolutionary struggle (though that difference is by no means to be discounted; the old adage that no one ever risked their life for postcolonial theory or postmodernism is well taken).
More germane is that postcolonial theory emerged after the conclusion of the revolutionary wave that culminated in 1968 and that it took as its ground the effort to explain the defeats that accompanied its aftermath. This is why Althusser’s theory of interpellation and Foucault’s notion of the discursive construction of knowledge played (and continues to play) such a prominent role in postcolonial theory. To be sure, there are dimensions of Fanon’s work that can be related to such approaches (one need only think of the role that the concept of “overdetermination” plays in Black Skin, White Masks). However, Fanon was interested in the social and psychic factors that shape and constrain individual thought and behavior as part of mapping out a pathway to their transcendence. We must never forget that the original title of his first book was “An Essay on the Disalienation of the Black Man.” To put it simply, Fanon was not interested in developing a theory of domination and oppression; he was not trying to explain the impossibility of escaping the nexus of power relations. Even when he grappled most directly with the defeats that he saw coming for the revolutions in Africa (most poignantly developed of course in The Wretched of the Earth) he did so for the sake of delineating ways of overcoming the pitfalls that he saw as endemic to them.
This has not been the central concern of postcolonial theory. It has consisted, in the main, of conceptualizing the defeat, developing, as it were, the ontology of defeat. We get to know from postcolonial theory why our hopes are so often dashed, why our expectations so often leave us short of what we thought we intended and desired. But in doing so it leaves us without hope. And without hope, in the end, there is no life. One thing that no one would claim—even the most virulent critic of Fanon—is that his work is lifeless.
There are three specific conceptual determinants that justify, as I see it, my claim that at issue here is a question of opposition rather than tension. The first is that of the Subject. Postcolonial theory, as everyone knows, proceeds from the deconstruction of the concept of the Subject, which it views as an unfortunate holdover from Enlightenment rationalism. The origins and reason for this negative standpoint vis-a-vis the concept of Subject is long and complex, but I think it suffices to say that Fanon did not share it. He does not think we are merely the plaything of powers and structures that are beyond our control. Instead, he held that “Man is a ‘yes;’ resounding from cosmic harmonies” (how many postcolonial theorists would have written that line!). Nor did he adhere to the Sartrean notion that “Hell is other people.” Fanon deeply appreciated Sartre’s work insofar as its description of the barriers to inter-subjective communion captures the reality of a racist, alienated, capitalistic world. But he did not ontologize such alienation as expressive of the human condition. As Alice Cherki (who knew him very well) put in her memoir, “Fanon was an incurable humanist.”
Humanism is indeed the second conceptual determinant that sets these two schools of thought apart. It represented far more than a literary flourish, and was no mere reflection of naiveté on his part. Fanon had a great love of common people, especially the most dispossessed and marginalized of them. He wasn’t one to make a career of talking about the subaltern while never bothering to live and work among them. This is evident from his writing, which is direct, complex, poetic, evocative, and understandable—all at the same time. It is no accident that his work is not characterized by the kind of abstract jargon that marks most postcolonial theory—after all, he was writing for the masses. And he was writing for them (and not just about them) because he had confidence in their intelligence, creativity, and revolutionary capacity. This explains why he places so much emphasis, in all of his work, on a “New Humanism” as what must become the central aim of struggles against racism, capitalism, and imperialism. For him, a new society represented the “return of humanity to itself,” as Marx once put it. He would never have assumed such a standpoint if he did not believe passionately in the ability of human beings to achieve a creative, purposeful, and meaningful existence. This dimension is simply lost in postcolonial theory, which seems to content itself with explaining why such aims prove fruitless.
Not unrelatedly, I think it is no accident that one of the best—if not the best—study of The Wretched of the Earth was not done by a postcolonial theorist, but rather James Yaki Sayles—a New Afrikan political prisoner who spent 33 years of his life in a U.S. prison for his political activities. One thing that is striking about his Mediations on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is his insightful discussion of Fanon’s understanding of the relation of race and class and his dedication to a “New Humanism.” Yaki Sayles writes, “Fanon didn’t seek an adequate foundation for ‘black’ identity! He sought a foundation for national identity; or, for identity as a revolutionary class; or, for identity as ‘new people’—a new humanity.” Perhaps it takes an actual revolutionary who has experienced the “veritable hell” of the U.S. criminal injustice system to be so attentive to the nuances and radical implications of Fanon’s philosophical project.
The third conceptual determinant that is at issue is the relation of race and class. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to deny the determinate importance of class both in Fanon’s work and in the realities facing developing societies (perhaps this has something to do with the fact when many postcolonial theorists hear the word “class” what seems to come to their minds is the vulgar materialist reductionism of the Stalinists, which of course they recoil from). Fanon was (as I try to show in my book) far more attentive to issues of class and economics than has often been presumed. Again, Yaki Sayles had some excellent insights here, as when he wrote: “The existence of Manichean thinking doesn’t make economic relationships secondary to ‘racial’ ones—it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: It masks and mystifies the economic relationships…but doesn’t undermine their primacy.” He adds, “When Fanon talks about the ‘species’ breaking up before our eyes…he’s talking about the breakup of ‘races’ themselves—the ‘races’ which were constructed as part of the construction of world capitalism, and which must first be deconstructed along with the deconstruction of capitalism.”
BD – During your interrogation of Fanon’s take on the emancipatory use of the veil by Algerian women during the revolutionary era of struggle against France, you state unequivocally that “colonial domination is so overpowering that the oppressed often respond by becoming reified into their forms of opposition”. How might such insight find relevance towards potentialities within current geohistorical struggles for social justice against western imperialist power in its contemporary guise as advanced neo-liberal capitalist globalization?
PH – To me, one of the most exciting things to happen in the last several years is the emergence of a new generation of anti-racist activists—especially in the U.S., but elsewhere as well—that has directly challenged and broken free of some of the “reified” forms that characterized earlier liberation movements. I am especially referring to the call by groups like Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 to view the world through a “Black-Feminist-Queer Lens.” This represents a breaking free of reified forms of opposition on several levels at once. It wasn’t that long ago that some Black nationalists barred Queers from their activities—a clear example of how easy it is to internalize hierarchy and oppression even while putting up the “good fight” against “the system.” But “the system” is not just “out there” but in each one of us to a certain extent, and we must be attentive to how easy it is to become fixated on what we oppose to the point of never really elaborating what we are for. Fanon understood this remarkably well, which is why he spoke so passionately about the need for a “New Humanism.” And need we emphasize the importance of Feminists and Queers looking at the world through a Black lens? These movements have also experienced their own forms of reification, but each is capable of breaking free from it—though it takes effort!
The key issue here is that every negation is dependent on the object of its critique. It may seem that you have rejected what oppresses you; but that very act tends to implicate you to some extent in what you are opposing. If you define yourself as opposing “neo-liberal capitalist globalization” you may think you are free from it; however, defining your opposition this way suggests that opposing neo-liberalism is the sum total of opposing capitalism. But it isn’t. Neo-liberalism is just one strategy adopted by global capital at a particular point in time (beginning in the 1970s) when it faced an urgent a need to reorganize in the face of changing circumstances. The real task we face is not just to oppose neo-liberalism, but go much deeper by opposing—and uprooting—all forms of capitalism. Capitalism existed before neo-liberalism and it may well exist after it. However, the very act of opposing neo-liberalism tends to mask recognition of its transient and epiphenomenal character, and that can have dire consequences. I’m referring to the fact that we are increasingly witnessing a rise of reactionary forms of opposition to neo-liberalism—and some of these are gaining mass support (the Trump campaign in the U.S. is, in part, a reflection of this). It may turn out that bourgeois society will at some point decide that neo-liberal globalization has outlived its mission and a new approach will be needed. But that may not represent any step forward—what is coming down the pipe may turn out to be far worse! At the very least, we will still be faced with capitalism, and capitalism in any form—be it “free market” or statist—is an abomination to humanity and nature.
One of Marx’s greatest insights was the idea that negation only ceases to be dependent on the object of its critique when we experience “the negation of the negation.” It was on these grounds that his 1844 Manuscripts attacks ”vulgar communism”—which held that the solution to capitalism is simply abolishing private property and the free market—on the grounds that “it completely negates the personality of humanity.” He held that the “vulgar communist” negation of capitalism must itself be negated by a much-more thoroughgoing revolution that leads to “positive Humanism” (his phrase). I think Fanon was thinking very much along these lines when he stated (in The Wretched of the Earth) that since colonialism consists in “depersonalizing” the individual,” the revolution against it must not stop at the achievement of national independence but must go further, by creating what he called “a new type of human relationship.” Looking at the world through “a Black-Feminist-Queer Lens” moves us quite far in that direction.
BD – After reading your work its clear you understand, unlike Arendt, that Fanon places no significance of violence outside the context of emancipatory praxis, and indeed by concurring with Fanon that “colonialism, which shapes the colonized subject, is violent through and through. Its very being is violence. The being of the subject is itself constituted by violence. To ask the colonized to forgo violence without forgoing the violence of the colonial world is a contradiction in terms.” How do you then justify any discursive hesitation with regards to his take on emancipatory violence and its role (by no means in exclusion to other factors) towards constituting a new human subjectivity-as-lived universal?
PH – Capitalism and colonialism are inherently built on violence. Neither can exist without it. Nor can the state—in ANY form—exist without violence. As Engels argued, the state exists as an organized expression of the violence that is needed so long as class societies exist. And there cannot be a class society that does not operate to repress and oppress the working classes. Fanon read those words of Engels and knew them very well. But he was not very impressed by them. Why? Because he already knew that and took such truisms for granted. What Fanon was interested in was something else: the “cleansing” role of violence—that is, the way in which the taking up of arms against the oppressor becomes part and parcel of ridding the colonized of the inferiority complex that is endemic to the colonial situation. Keep in mind that Fanon was always haunted (as he put it in Black Skin, White Masks) by the fear that “Historically, the black man, steeped in the inessentiality of servitude, was set fee by the master. He did not fight for his freedom.” He was searching for a way for the colonized subject to overcome their sense of servitude, and one part—just one part, but an important one (far more important to Fanon was raising the consciousness of the oppressed by expanding their minds on every level)—was to make sure that the movement be directed by their use of revolutionary violence.
Arendt (and others like her) was therefore very wrong to accuse Fanon of embracing some “metaphysics of violence.” He embraced violence for a specific purpose, at a specific point in time. He never said that the ONLY way to achieve national independence was through violence. He knew full well that countries like Ghana and Guinea achieved national independence without violence. He was concerned with what was happening (or would happen) in places like Algeria if independence was achieved through some kind of “reconciliation” between the contending parties instead of a fight to the finish.
That said, one reason for the “discursive hesitation” that you mention is that it is far from clear that violence in fact had such a cleansing role in the African revolutions—or anywhere else. This is not to deny the necessity of violence at particular times and places; in fact, it goes without saying that the notion that the property-right of the ruling classes can be abolished without violence is something of a chimera. But again, that was not Fanon’s reason for discussing the issue. He was concerned with marshaling violence in some specific historical circumstances for the sake of elevating and developing the self-certainty of the subject in its quest to shed the old colonized personality and create a new, free, self-determined one.
On this score, we do have reasons to be critical and skeptical of Fanon’s claims about violence. There is little empirical evidence that violence has such a cleansing role, and lots of evidence that it does not—that it is, ultimately, dehumanizing. This does not mean that he was wrong to advocate violence in certain specific situations; it does suggest that his rationale for doing so was faulty. As I see it, Fanon did not make a philosophy out of violence—his thought rests on far more secure premises—and it is counter-productive to make a philosophy out of either violence or non-violence. The latter is a matter of tactics and strategy in light of specific historical circumstances; it is not conducive to abstract generalizations, from either one side or the other. That much Fanon knew. But he may not known as much about the “cleansing” role of violence than is suggested by his text.
BD – Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades is an exemplary work grounded through an epistemological ‘stretching’ of Marxist thought towards grasping emancipatory philosophical implications introduced from within the socio-ontological underground of modernity. What is it about your own philosophical orientation that allows you to be able to theoretically overcome a traditionally vulgar Marxism which you describe as “a series of fixed conclusions that is applied willy-nilly to any and all realities regardless of their specific social content”?
Much of my political and theoretical life has consisted of a strong aversion to abstract and formulaic approaches to questions of human liberation. In part, this is a matter of personal judgment and preference—if one acknowledges that any and all efforts at liberation is about the transformation of human relations, how can one adopt a theory or philosophy that reduces human beings to some abstract formula? I was initially drawn to Marx’s work because I sensed in it the conception that “all emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to humanity itself.” But when I encountered Marxists at a young age, I found that most of them seemed to be coming from a very different place. Their politics was full of formulaic, fixed conclusions that were applied willy-nilly without much examination of the matter at hand. “The USSR is a ‘workers’ state’”—even though no workers were in control of the USSR; “Socialism is nationalized property”—even though there is plenty of evidence that capitalist societies can live with nationalized property. “Marxism is a theory of class struggle”—even though it seems obvious that many issues of concern to Marxists do not directly pertain to class struggle at all. I could cite many more examples, but you see my point.
It was not until I discovered the work of Raya Dunayevskaya and other Marxist-Humanist thinkers that I began to see a much more nuanced and interesting approach to Marxism. I was especially struck by her insistence that Marxism is not merely a theory of class struggle—though class struggle was the central issue for Marx in his time—but something much deeper, a philosophy of liberation. And I was especially impressed with her argument that the development of U.S. society shows that race and racism is the cardinal issue—not because they supplant class, but because class relations throughout U.S. history have been shaped and mediated by racial factors. Here was a Marxism that did not seem formulaic at all, but approached new, specific phenomena with open eyes and with the aim of delineating “the thing itself”—its dialectical development. That is very different from imposing upon a phenomenon a set of beliefs and conclusions drawn from a different arena or subject matter. It makes one’s work a lot harder—which is why few take this approach. But it seemed to me to be more conducive to a realistic understanding of what human beings and their social existence is really about.
What was also important in my orientation was the study of Hegel, something strongly encouraged by my association with Dunayevskaya (I served as her secretary for the last year of her life). Hegel is very difficult, but well worth the effort—precisely because he teaches you how not to fall into formulaic abstractions but to grasp the dialectic of things as they are in themselves. Hegel’s insistence that the object generates its own categories of knowledge, and that the task of the philosopher is to pay careful heed to what the object discloses—as against imposing your prejudices or conclusions upon it—was a tremendous eye-opener. Of course, on some rather critical issues Hegel didn’t listen to his own advice, as seen in the highly formulaic (and inaccurate) outline of human “progress” in his Philosophy of History—in which Africa is considered to be without a history of its own and beneath the level of “advanced” Europe. What that suggests, it seems to me, is that the task of avoiding “a series of fixed conclusions that is applied to all realities regardless of their content” must be quite a challenge if even as great a thinker as Hegel succumbed to it. It also makes it a bit easier to understand why it also afflicts lesser mortals like ourselves.
What drove this home to me—quite literally!—was seeing this impact even some of those associated with Marxist-Humanism. In 1988, a year after Dunayevskaya’s death, I became national co-organizer of News and Letters Committees, the organization she had founded in the 1950s. I had some magnificent experiences over the course of the next two decades working as a full time activist, organizer, and theorist for Marxist-Humanism, but by the early 2000s it became clear that a considerable number of those in the group had reduced the philosophy to little more than a series of clichés, formulas, and the repetition of conclusions developed from years long past. Instead of developing the ideas to deal with new realities, they were being reduced (to use Hegel’s phrase) to little more than a “pillow for intellectual sloth.” Efforts to move things in a different direction eventually provided fruitless, and so in 2008, along with half the organization, I decided a departure from the group was needed. A new organization was formed (the International Marxist-Humanist Organization, now by far the largest and most successful of groups influenced by Dunayevskaya). Time will tell as to whether it will live up to the challenge of avoiding the kinds of problems seen in the prior history of the tendency, but living through this experience made me newly attentive, I believe, to Fanon’s very non-formulaic and creative approach to politics, psychology, and philosophy when I sat down to write Philosopher of the Barricades in 2015.
This has been another one of our BROTHERWISE FIVE interview series, during which THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH interrogates intellectuals, artists and activists with five probing questions to the delight of our readers.
On behalf of Peter Hudis and THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH,
-A. Shahid Stover
(this interview of Peter Hudis for THE BROTHERWISE DISPATCH was conducted by A. Shahid Stover through email correspondence from August 29th – October 23rd of 2016)