Discusses Peter Hudis’s Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades in terms of Fanon’s rejection of an ontology of Blackness; his dialectic of race, class, and colonialism; and Fanon in relation to contemporary postcolonial thought. Bhattacharya’s comments were delivered at a meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where Selim Nadi, Hudis, and she spoke on the book. Sponsored by the Decolonising Our Minds student group, it was attended by nearly 400. These remarks first appeared on the Pluto Press blog, HERE – Editors.
Peter Hudis has written a wonderful biography of Frantz Fanon. We have a debt of gratitude to Pluto Press and to my friend and comrade Paul Le Blanc, the series editor, for this project of reanimating revolutionary lives.
But to Peter we owe a particular gratitude. For Peter did not write a simple narrative biography of Fanon— that would have been a historicist exercise in which the past of Fanon would connect seamlessly to our present and we ‘draw lessons’ from it.
But the past is a tricky customer and both Fanon and Peter understand that well. So following the methodology that Walter Benjamin recommends, Peter has blasted Fanon out of linear, empty time and has constellated for us moments in Fanon that are necessary to consider for our present.
These distilled Fanonian moments that Peter offers us may have been important or not so important for those seeking to change the world in Fanon’s own time. But they are recognizably relevant for our times and what is significant is how Peter has captured these fugitive concepts to help change the world for a new generation.
So I will outline a few of those moments that Peter has picked, that have flashed for him, in our ‘moment of danger’ and explore their significance.
The first, Fanon’s steadfast rejection of an ontology of Blackness or negritude. It is Fanon of course who contends that there is no ‘real’ to Blackness and hence it can have no ontology. But it is Peter who rescues this vital insight and assembles it for us in its full figuration:
“’Blackness’ [for Fanon] is not a ‘natural’ reality—it is not a form of being that just ‘is’. Blackness is instead a construct of specific social relations. It is produced, fabricated, not simply given. The black ‘exists’ as black, only in relation to the white: there is no pre-existing black essence that a black person can fall back upon.” p. 31.
Fanon is not interested in race, per se. But in the functioning of rac-ism. And not in the functioning of racism because it is a social scientific curio, but in order to abolish it. Here Peter is reanimating for us an aspect of antiracist praxis that cannot be emphasized enough for our times: that race is a social relation, and its ‘reality’ is constituted and limited by those specific social relations.
But what are those relations?
This brings me to the second and related Fanonian moment that Peter highlights: the arabesque of race and class, or oppression and its economic roots.
Peter begins by highlighting Fanon’s criticism of Octave Mannoni’s significant work Prospero and Caliban, one of the “first attempts of applying psychology to a critique of colonialism.” p. 40. Fanon took issue with Mannoni’s contention that colonialism in Madagascar resulted from a “dependency complex” borne by the natives rather than from social or economic domination.
For Fanon, deeply interested as he was in exploring the interiority of racism, this is an utterly unacceptable explanation. And Peter draws out Fanon’s consistently explanatory framework for racism thus:
“Racism is not produced by some exceptional character structure or flaw on the part of its victims. Racism is produced by a structure of colonial and class domination that is wedded to specific socio-economic determinants. This is what makes it ubiquitous.” p. 41.
It goes without saying of course that this anagnorisis, or lack of it, between race and class is still haunting us. So when Peter draws our attention to the Fanon’s debate with Sartre about this we find resemblances that bear uncanny echoes of the present:
“…in Black Orpheus, Sartre refers to black consciousness and pride as a “weak stage” that must ultimately give way to the proletarian class struggle…For Sartre, race is a mere particular, class is the universal.” p. 49.
Peter here is critically employing Fanon’s conceptual apparatus to prise open the deadlock between race and class or the economic and the extra-economic. Sartre, Peter tells us with some humor has “forgotten Hegel’s most important insight—that the absolute is immanent in each phase, even though it makes its full appearance only at the end.” p. 49.
With Peter, Fanon and by extension Hegel are in very good hands. This rich understanding of race and class that Peter offers us here, which in truth I would have liked to hear more of, is taking on not just reductive views regarding the singular abstraction of a separate ‘race’ from a separate ‘class’ but also the mechanistic view (or what Hegel calls ‘mechanism’) of an absolute race just intermingling with an absolute class. Peter is reminding us of what is a core Hegelian and also a Marxist insight—that social relations are dynamic and co-constitutive of each other. Hence, the presence of the absolute in all medium term phenomena.
If this were not thought provoking enough, Peter also forces us to reassess any easy integration of Frantz Fanon into Third World postcoloniality. Peter here stands in the tradition of scholars such as David Macey, Henry Louis Gates and Neil Lazarus who have in the past called for a corrective ‘re-historicization’ of Fanon, rescuing his fierce and concrete anticolonialism from the enchantments of a depoliticized postmodern. Peter achieves this in two interesting ways.
First, he carefully and attentively parses out the categories of race, class and nation. Unlike a certain variety of postcolonial scholarship that posits Fanon as the uncritical champion of insurgent nationalism, Peter’s shows both the nuances and the ongoing development in Fanon’s thought regarding these imbricated issues. So for instance, consider when Fanon burns his bridges with the organized Left in France, for their shameful support of French colonial rule in the Maghreb. This is where the postcolonial scholar abandons the trail. Indeed it can be proved that Fanon has turned against ‘Europe’ as he raises his voice on occasion against the working class of the colonial regime, who ought to have supported the war against the colonial power, but failed to live up to that task. But Peter does not abandon the narrative here. Instead he carefully reconstructs Fanon’s continuing faith in and expectations of the working class of the exploiting country, as Fanon talks about the “internal relation… that unites the oppressed peoples to the exploited masses of the colonialist countries.” p. 86.
The second strategy that Peter adopts in this regard is to re-center Fanon’s deep animosity of the nationalist bourgeoisie whom Fanon designated to be “the most impetuous, the most enterprising, the most annexationist in the world.” p. 116. Indeed Peter here excavates Fanon’s references to the Comintern’s Baku conference in 1920 as Fanon tries to bring his anti-imperialism in conversation with an emerging understanding of the combined and uneven nature of capitalist development. This is not any simplistic notion of the Third World where class hostilities can be postponed or masked in the name of national unity—this is a Fanon, painted by Peter who is as intransigent in his opposition to the new indigenous ruling class of the postcolonial nation state as he was to their colonial masters.
With Benjamin’s advice on temporality in mind, with Peter’s aid, then, we capture from the past the Fanon that we need for our times. A Fanon who is a fierce antiracist but denies any ontology or essence to Blackness. A Fanon who is a fierce anti-imperialist but deeply hostile to bourgeois nationalism. A Fanon who relentlessly exposes the Islamophobia and racism of sections of the Left, but only by holding them to the best emancipatory standards of the Enlightenment.
Peter’s Fanon is not without flaws, Peter did not set out to write a hagiography. For instance, Fanon’s unhelpful silence on Hungary 1956, for instance, is not passed over by Peter. But what Peter has done in his critical assessment of Fanon is identified the possibilities deposited in the past—and in that he has actualized Fanon for our present. The alert reader is forced to reckon with not just Frantz Fanon as past, but Frantz Fanon’s political project as an invitation to recommit to transformatory politics in the here and now.
Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of History at Purdue University. She is the author of The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2005) and a long time activist for Palestinian justice. She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender, and the politics of Islamophobia.