As a motto to the conclusion of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon quotes Marx: ‘In order to find their own content, the revolutions of the nineteenth century have to let the dead bury the dead.’ The social revolution cannot draw its poetry from the past but only from the future.i Hence, a descent to roots and a return to the source are not the solution. The existence of a black civilisation that disappeared in the 15th century does not grant black people ‘a badge of humanity’: ‘I am not a man of any past. I do not want to sing of the past at the expense of my present and my future.’ This proclamation of the refusal of all romantic nostalgia is part of a time of liberation struggles that opened a narrow door to the future and the universal.
‘If the question once arose for me about showing solidarity with a given past,’ii Fanon writes,
[…] it is not the black world that governs my behaviour. […] It is not my duty to be this or that…. I am not a prisoner of History. […] In the world I am heading for I am endlessly creating myself. […] I am a black man, and tons of chains, squalls of lashes, and rivers of spit stream over my shoulders. But I don’t have the right to put down roots. I don’t have the right to admit the slightest patch of being into my existence. I don’t have the right to become mired by the determination of the past. I am not a slave to the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors. […] There should be no attempt to fixate man, since it is his destiny to be unleashed…. The density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation.… I, a man of colour […] don’t have the right to confine myself to a world of retroactive reparations.iii
A superb text, in its basis and in its form; a radical refusal to let oneself be ‘anchored’ or nailed down in the museum of subjugated identities, be caught by the glue of the past, be fixed in slightest way, be subjugated to the chains of one’s ancestors. It emits and transmits a declaration of freedom and liberation, of going beyond and of transgression, of surpassing oneself, escaping being towards becoming, unchaining and disentangling. As perfectly familiar as he is with the colonial usage of abstract universalism, Fanon intends to fully assume ‘the universalism inherent to the human condition’. White and Black are not for ever enclosed, one in Whiteness, the other in Blackness. Contrary to someone like Dieudonné, Fanon asserts that ‘when they speak of Jews, it is of me that they speak.’iv Negritude is a passageway, not a destination. Passing through the particular injustice, he wants to ‘tend towards the universal’. This universality without origin, this universalism in movement, this permanent universalizing ‘resides in this decision to recognize and accept the reciprocal relativism of different cultures, once the colonial status is irreversibly excluded.’v An incorrigible humanist illusion? Activist naivety? The intractable optimism of the period of decolonization and impending liberation? Or, rather, the programmatic outline of an itinerary to follow, in spite of fatigue, dead-ends and detours?
In his The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon feared that the ‘unchanging way of life’ of the colonized would one day give birth to movements ‘which are based on religious fanaticism or tribal wars.’vi Sadly, this fear has been confirmed. Others had announced that the path to liberation would not be as straight as the Nevsky Prospect. Babeuf already rose up, during the ‘populicide’ of the Vendée, against the violence of the victors: ‘they have made barbarians of us!’ Fanon in his turn foresaw that a ‘tribal dictatorship’ and a ‘tribalization of power’ could take over from colonial dictatorship, and that the formation of dependent nations could perpetuate the mutilations of colonized societies beyond independence. He also envisaged that the colonized could defend themselves against colonial alienation ‘by going one better in religious estrangement [alienation]’, with the only result being the accumulation of both alienations.vii Prophetic words.
In his somewhat angelic apology for liberating violence, Sartre was in fact more ‘Third Worldist’ than Fanon, who knew from experience the ambivalence of such violence. Sartre justified it unconditionally, to the point of being lyrical. Fanon strove to think of it prosaically: unless it was rationalized in the service of a conscious policy, violence that was simply reactive to oppression would end up being exhausted in fratricidal struggles: asymmetrical views, of one who was a colonizer in spite of himself, and of a colonized being who had learned from uncertain struggles.
Fanon knew all too well that (neo-)colonialism could find a ‘considerable space for manoeuvring’in the lumpenproletariat and lumpen-bourgeoisie.viii He knew all too well the pitfalls of ‘anti-racist racism’, the venom of hatred and resentment, the vices of an underdeveloped bourgeoisie, and the one-party system as ‘a modern form of bourgeois dictatorship’. That was no reason to be blasé, or to throw in the towel. Quite the contrary. But it was important to avoid getting lost in mirages and false starting-points. Despite his clear-sighted warnings, Fanon can still appear today to be a prisoner of certain illusions of progress. Yet the prophetic force of his thought does not carry the message of a radiant future, but rather a conditional warning – ‘if …, then, …’ – which calls for action with no certainty of outcome.
[Translation of ‘Fragment mécréant’, available at danielbensaid.org. Originally published in Fragments mécréants (Paris, 2005). Translation and footnotes by Alex de Jong.]
i Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York, 2008), p. 198.
ii Ibid., p. 202.
iii Ibid., pp. 203-205.
iv Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a French comic. Initially opposed to the Front National, he turned to the far-right in the mid 2000s.
v From ‘Racism and Culture’, in Frantz Fanon, Towards the African Revolution, p. 44.
vi Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, 1963), p. 112.
vii Ibid., p. 19. The formulation is from Sartre’s Introduction.
viii Ibid., p. 136.