Revolutionary Fanonism: On Frantz Fanon’s Modification of Marxism and Decolonization of Democratic Socialism

The Riddles of Revolutionary Fanonism – Much More Than Marxism in Blackface: Fanon’s Critical Modification of Marxism in the Anti-Imperialist Interests of Africa and Africans, Among the Other Wretched of the Earth

It is important, at the outset, for us not to confuse what I am calling “revolutionary Fanonism” with Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s conception of “critical Fanonism.” For Gates “critical Fanonism” entails, not reading Frantz Fanon to ascertain what his lifework and legacy offers to the ongoing struggle against imperialism, but an intertextual exercise that critiques others’ interpretations of Fanon, especially if the interpreters attempt to connect Fanon’s critical thought to radical political practice. Gates, in “Critical Fanonism” (1999), sternly states: “My intent is not to offer a reading of Fanon to supplant these others, but to read, even if summarily, some of these readings of Fanon” (252). Ultimately what Gates provides is a part poststructuralist, part postmodernist, and part postcolonialist read of Fanon that surreptitiously serves as a theoretical substitute for the Frantz Fanon who decidedly committed himself to: revolutionary decolonization; the Algerian revolution; revolutionary Pan-Africanism; revolutionary humanism; and, a distinct African-centered brand of democratic socialism with serious implications for revolutionary re-Africanization. That Fanon, which is to say, the Fanon who revealingly wrote A Dying Colonialism, Toward the African Revolution and, of course, The Wretched of the Earth, is tellingly absent from Gates’s Black Skin, White Masks-based read (or, rather, misread) of Fanon. In Gates’s own words:

Fanon’s current fascination for us has something to do with the convergence of the problematic of colonialism with that of subject-formation. As a psychoanalyst of culture, as a champion of the wretched of the earth, he is an almost irresistible figure for a criticism that sees itself as both oppositional and postmodern. And yet there’s something Rashomon-like about his contemporary guises. It may be a matter of judgment whether his writings are rife with contradiction or richly dialectical, polyvocal, and multivalent; they are in any event highly porous, that is, wide open to interpretation, and the readings they elicit are, as a result, of unfailing symptomatic interest: Frantz Fanon, not to put too fine a point on it, is a Rorschach blot with legs. (252)

Revolutionary Fanonism does not completely repudiate critical Fanonism, as it utterly understands the importance of, nay, the need to critically read and re-read others’ interpretations and, it must be said, misinterpretations of Fanon. However, what makes revolutionary Fanonism, well, revolutionary is its move above and beyond the interpretations of others’ interpretations of Fanon, its “return to the sources” of any form of Fanonism, i.e. Fanon’s thought and texts, and its earnest efforts to sift through and salvage anything from Fanon’s lifework and legacy that might be useful in the ongoing dialectical process(es) of revolutionary decolonization and re-Africanization. Revolutionary Fanonism rejects the domestication and academization of Fanon’s thought, reemphasizes its radical political implications, and innovatively identifies its contributions to critical theory of contemporary society. In this sense, then, revolutionary Fanonism, utilizing the sankofian dialectic, seeks to apply Fanon’s thought and texts to positively alter the continuing neocolonial present and ensure a truly anti-racist, democratic socialist, and postcolonial future.1

It can hardly be doubted that Fanonism has increasingly blossomed since Fanon’s death fifty years ago. However, this can be both a theoretical blessing and a conceptual curse, because now with all of the critical attention and interpretive interest, instead of actually reading Fanon’s work, many are relying on his erstwhile interpreters and critics. While interpreters and critics do have their place in Fanonism, there is absolutely no substitute for critically engaging Fanon on his own terms, and in light of his own heartfelt words.

Critical Fanonism, it seems to me, is frequently almost purely textual and, in some senses, goes against Fanon’s own insurgent aspirations and against the internal logic of each and every one of his texts, which constantly encourage connecting or, rather, reconnecting ideas to actions, theory to praxis. By incessantly interpreting others’ interpretations of Fanon, not only are critical Fanonists or, rather more appropriately, hermeneutic Fanonists participating in the most turgid type of (inter)textualism, which ultimately serves as nothing other than a subterfuge for bourgeois academism or elite intellectualism, but they seriously distract and derail their readers from fully engaging the radical and indeed revolutionary aspects of Fanon’s thought.

In truth, though, the critical Fanonists are only partially to blame. The other part of the responsibility rests with their would-be Fanon readers. Fanon, if truth be told, is so much more than what his interpreters claim that he is, and this includes my Africana critical theoretical interpretation. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and most misinterpreted elements of Fanon’s thought revolves around his critical relationship with democratic socialism, and Marxism more generally. It is this thorny issue that will mainly concern us here.

“Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem”: Fanon(ism), Marx(ism), and the Africana Tradition of Critical Theory

In Fanonian philosophy, decolonization is the logical consequence of colonization. Therefore, those who would label decolonizers and their discourse “nativists” and “nativism,” should read, very slowly and carefully, the following line from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “The argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler…” (1968: 310). That “the native” “chooses” violence – self-defensive violence – as a means toward the end of “total liberation” should surprise no one, least of all colonialists, capitalists, and those associated with the ruling race, ruling gender, and ruling class(es) of the modern (neo)imperial “world-system.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had written of the imminent revolution for many years by the time Fanon developed his discourse(s) on revolutionary decolonization. Marx and Engels, as is well known, stated quite cryptically in The Communist Manifesto:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official [bourgeois] society being sprung into the air. (1978: 482)

Real or, rather, revolutionary decolonization is essentially this paragraph magnified ten times over, and then dropped into the context of our (post)modern moment of clandestine racial colonialism, or, as Kwame Nkrumah (1965) and Samir Amin (1973) would have it, “neocolonialism.” Were one to substitute “colored/colonized” or “racially colonized” for “proletarian” and “proletariat” above, then perhaps Fanon’s assertion might make more sense. Which is to say, the argument(s) chosen and augmented, adopted and adapted by the racially colonized were and are, to a certain extent, supplied by the “radical” and “revolutionary” traditions of colonialist and capitalist Europe. One need look no further than C.L.R. James’s magisterial The Black Jacobins to comprehend that the “first” successful revolution by people of African descent in the modern era was deeply influenced by, and inextricable from, the French Revolution of 1789. However, Fanon proposes that “Marxist analysis,” or any other “radical” or “revolutionary” tradition that does not arise out of the specific concrete historicity (i.e., the life-worlds and life-struggles) of the racially colonized, should be altered so as to encompass and suit the needs of their particular time and circumstances (1968: 40).

In “Rescuing Fanon from the Critics,” the noted Trinidadian historian Tony Martin (1999), perhaps more so than any other Fanonist, has asserted that although “Fanon’s writings reveal the influence of several people – Hegel, Marx, Sartre, and Césaire, to name but a few,” most critics and commentators have generally “evaluated his philosophy around the concept of Marxism” (85).2 However, Fanon, like only a handful of Marxist theorists, understood well what Marx meant when he wrote, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The social revolution…cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future” (Marx & Engels 1978: 597; quoted in Fanon 1967: 223; see also Martin 1999: 86). For although “the argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler,” it must constantly be kept in mind that Fanon himself said: “Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem. Everything up to and including the very nature of pre-capitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again” (1968: 40). Fanon, therefore, set for himself the task of enhancing (“slightly stretch[ing]”) Marxist analysis. He asserted that “everything” “so well explained by Marx” needed to be – out of historical, cultural, and geographical necessity – “thought out again.”

What does it mean to “stretch,” to extend and expand Marxists analysis in our search for solutions to “the colonial problem”? What does it mean to rethink social transformation in light of the anti-imperial onuses that both colonialism and capitalism present, and specifically – in contradistinction to comrade Karl Marx’s corpus – to “people of color,” to nonwhites, to roguishly racialized people? Fanon, perhaps, would have replied that there are no social or political panaceas for the plethora of problems which presently plague humanity. Even if “the argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler,” “the native” does not and should not conceptually incarcerate or intellectually emaciate herself or himself in “the colonial vocabulary” (43). Fanon discerned that “Marxist analysis” pertained to capitalism, not to colonialism.3 Which is to say, although Marxism may very well provide one of the most comprehensive critical theories of capitalism, it has been and, for the most part, remains shamefully silent concerning colonialism, especially the racial colonialism which has negatively impacted the majority of the human species and their histories, cultures, and civilizations.

Indeed, Marx and the critical (as opposed to “vulgar,” “orthodox,” and/or “mechanical”) Marxists provide one of the – if not “the” – most comprehensive and sophisticated critiques of capitalism. However, they have consistently neglected to factor capitalism’s interconnections with racism and colonialism into their analyses. That is why Fanon’s emphasis on a more elastic interpretation and application of Marxism, particularly outside of the conventional capitalist context, remains so seminal. He challenged the anti-colonialist intellectual-activist to be also anti-capitalist and anti-racist. It was the critically-acclaimed Caribbean American philosopher Lewis Gordon (1997), one of the leading and more critical Fanon scholars, who asserted that Fanon’s thought might best be characterized as “conjunctive analysis” which critically engaged racism and colonialism and capitalism (35f). The Fanonian intellectual-activist, then, is much more than a mere Marxist disciple, and also more than a mere critical race theorist and anti-colonialist. The Fanonian intellectual-activist is not, under any circumstances, a mere academic, ivory tower overseer, or armchair revolutionary. He or she is, indeed, a critical theorist and revolutionary humanist, and is also a constant critic of internalized colonialism, racism, and capitalism on the part of the racially colonized. This is the dual mandate that Fanon ascribed to the revolutionary intellectual-activist. Noted Fanon scholar Nigel Gibson (1999b) eloquently addressed this issue when he wrote: “Rather than applying an a priori, a crucial task for the Fanonian intellectual was to confront the intellectual’s internalization of colonial ideology that had become mentally debilitating. The native intellectual, therefore, does not simply uncover subjugated knowledges but has to challenge the underdeveloped and Manichaean ways of thinking produced by colonial rule” (114).

Colonialism inherently gives colonized intellectuals an intellectual inferiority complex. In order to initiate the process(es) of revolutionary decolonization, the anti-colonial (on-the-path-to-becoming-postcolonial) intellectuals must radically rupture their relationship with their (neo)colonial (mis)education and practice critical conceptual generation, putting forward dialectical theory and praxis particular to, and in the best interest of, their specific historical struggle against colonialism, capitalism and racism, among other (post)modern socio-political issues and ills. In a word, colonized intellectuals must “decolonize their minds,” as noted Kenyan laureate Ngugi (1986) put it, and become revolutionary intellectual-activists. Again, Gibson offers insights:

The revolutionary intellectual who explicitly attempts to develop the often conflictual relationship between mental and manual labor, therefore, is grounded in two interpenetrated though different types of knowledge: the explication of subjugated knowledges and knowledges born of resistance, in their myriad (and not simply practical) forms; and what Fanon meant by working out new concepts, namely, the history of the idea of freedom. These knowledges are connected: revolutionary thought is also a conceptualization of the historical memory of struggle. (1999b: 120)

In “challeng[ing] the underdeveloped and Manichaean ways of thinking produced by colonial rule” the Fanonian intellectual-activist must also bear in mind what Amilcar Cabral (1979) contended: “A people who free themselves from foreign domination will not be free culturally unless, without underestimating the importance of positive contributions from the oppressor’s culture and other cultures, they return to the upwards paths of their own culture” (143). The Fanonian intellectual-activist, like the Cabralian intellectual-activist, has a deeply dialectical rapport and critical relationship with Marxism, one that simultaneously critiques most Marxists’ inattention to racism and colonialism (or, rather, racial colonialism), but greatly appreciates their thoroughgoing critique of capitalism. From the point of view of Fanon’s critical theoretical framework, Marxism can be effectively used toward anti-colonial ends and, more importantly, in the process(es) of revolutionary decolonization. However, we should not forget his admonition that “Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.”

In The Class Struggles in France, Marx emphasized: “A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis” (Marx & Engels 1978: 593). For Fanon, it could be said that racial colonialism presented humanity with “a new crisis” and, therefore, that “a new revolution,” a whole new conception of revolution was required, one that took into consideration not merely the ravaging effects of capitalism, but also those of colonialism and racism. It was incumbent on “the wretched of the earth,” without ignoring the predatory and vampiric nature of capitalism, to acutely analyze and assess their own racial and colonial oppression, exploitation and alienation. The revolutionary intellectual-activists, who think and act in the anti-imperialist interests of, and in concert with, “the wretched of the earth” must do precisely what Fanon admonished them to do at the close of The Wretched of the Earth – which is to say, “waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry” of Eurocentric and capitalist political economy-obsessed Marxists (1968: 311).

Fanon forcefully challenged these intellectual-activists to politically and culturally “Leave…Europe” (311). He critically continued: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth” (313). Fanon was well aware that we, like any people involved in a life or death struggle for human liberation, “need a model,” that “we want blueprints and examples.” He earnestly admitted that “[f]or many among us the European model is the most inspiring” (312). This is so because (neo)colonialist (mis)education exclusively and purposely exposes racially colonized intellectuals to Eurocentric models, social movements, political thought, philosophy, culture, and so on. Racially colonized intellectuals, therefore, are just that, racially colonized, and the only way they can decolonize their minds is by plunging themselves into the depths of those elements of their indigenous thought, culture, and traditions – pre-colonial, colonial, and neocolonial – which could potentially aid them in their efforts to develop critical theory and revolutionary praxis. They must, however, do this without losing sight of those “positive contributions from the oppressor’s culture and other cultures,” as Cabral importantly asserted, which could, if employed in the anti-imperialist interests of the wretched of the earth, provide them not only with critical theories of, but critical praxes in and against, the white supremacist colonial capitalist world.

“The European Style Ought No Longer to Tempt Us and to Throw Us Off Our Balance”: Fanon’s Critique of Eurocentric Marxist Critical Theory

According to Fanon, the “nauseating mimicry” and “imitation” of “the European model” on the part of racially colonized people has led to “mortifying setbacks.” Among his four books, it is Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth that most explicitly engage these issues. It was both shameful and horrifying to Fanon that as more African countries gained “independence” – what Nkrumah (1965) in his conception of neocolonialism called “nominal independence” – and as more Africans in the diaspora secured greater access to education and basic civil rights, they not only continued to turn to Europe, but willingly and increasingly deepened their reprehensible racial colonial relationships with European “mother countries.” Fanon fumed:

European achievements, European techniques, and the European style ought no longer to tempt us and to throw us off our balance.

When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

The human condition, plans for mankind, and collaboration between men in those tasks which increase the sum total of humanity are new problems, which demand true inventions. (1968: 312f)

The “new problems” are precisely the ones that the racial and colonial proletariat, as well as the racial colonial peasantry, have long been struggling against: racism and colonialism, and the intersections and interconnections between and betwixt capitalism and colonialism and racism. When Fanon asserted that “we” – that is, the wretched of the earth’s revolutionary intellectual-activists – must “combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction,” the “new direction” that he had in mind was one that simultaneously built on and went well beyond Marxist analyses of the vicissitudes and vampiric nature of capitalism. For Fanon, as for Africana critical theorists, Marxism is but one of many theoretical tools or, as Cabral contended, “weapons of theory” to be deployed in the struggle against (neo)imperialism. Europe should not be the measure and model for what it means to be “human,” or “civilized,” or “cultured,” or “modern.” In fact, Fanon announced, when the racially colonized intellectual shifts from being racially “colonized” and begins the arduous process of becoming the wretched of the earth’s revolutionary intellectual-activist, anything is possible. Why? Because real revolution, as opposed to theoretical or rhetorical revolution, is nothing other than the concrete creation of historical possibilities, the innovative opening up of historical and cultural alternatives. What may previously have appeared impossible now seems quite possible. Fanon was unequivocally critical of, and critically optimistic about, the wretched of the earth’s revolutionary intellectual-activists, declaring: “We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe” (312).

It is with this in mind that I turn to the important work of the renowned Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu (1991), who makes two important points with regard to the discussion at hand. The first is, “it seems to be a fact about human beings generally that technical progress is apt to outstrip moral insight”; in this sense, he continues, “the philosophical thought of a traditional (i.e., pre-literate and non-industrialized) society may hold some lessons of moral significance for a more industrialized society” (98). This recalls Fanon’s assertion that we must move “in a new direction,” and turn our attention to the “new problems, which demand true inventions.” The “new direction” that Fanon has in mind here is not a Senghorian Negritude nostalgic embrace of all things “primitive” in pre-colonial Africa, but a sankofian dialectical and Africana critical theoretical archaeology of those aspects of Africa’s past – pre-colonial, colonial, and neocolonial – that could potentially be utilized in our present struggle(s) for human liberation and a higher level of human life.

Wiredu’s work is insightful in that it helps to highlight, not simply some of the distinct differences between Africana and European thought, but the fact that Africana thought, like European thought, has aspects that are simultaneously particular and universal, and that European theorists, among others, could gather a great deal from Africana thought (see also Wiredu 2004). This brings us to Wiredu’s second major point:

An obvious fact about the thought of a traditional society is that it is communalistic in orientation. By contrast, the more industrialized a society is, the more individualistic it seems to become. Now it is quite plain that some of the most unlovable aspects of life in the so-called advanced countries are connected with individualism. It is reasonable to expect that a critical examination of individualism in the context of a study of a communally oriented philosophy might yield some useful insights for people engaged in the quest for industrialization as well as for those who are far advanced in that process. Of course, both communalism and individualism may have their strengths and weaknesses. But, an objective appraisal of them is likely to be hampered if studied exclusively from the point of view of any one of these modes of life. (1991: 98f)

Contemporary continental and diasporan Africans live in both industrial and non-industrial societies, racial colonial and racist capitalist societies, literate and semiliterate societies and, therefore, the revolutionary intellectual-activists who have been charged by Fanon with the task of searching for solutions requiring “true inventions” must take all of this into consideration and also heed Wiredu’s words and wisdom when he observed that “both communalism and individualism may have their strengths and weaknesses,” of which the intellectual-activists must undertake “an objective appraisal.” Wiredu’s work enables the revolutionary intellectual-activists to call into question Eurocentric conceptions of “progress” and “modernization” and also demonstrates that, because of what he terms “the historical accident of colonialism,” Africa may be underdeveloped in many – although certainly by no means all – areas (98). However, by the same token, his work accents the often-overlooked fact that although Europe may be technically and scientifically overdeveloped when compared to Africa, in many other areas, especially ethics and morality, Africa (among other “underdeveloped” continents) is arguably more advanced. Wiredu’s ideas on this subject have been recently echoed by Nigel Gibson, who revealingly wrote, “it is now the European who must catch up with the African” (1999b: 119).

Instead of mindlessly mimicking Eurocentric Marxists, the revolutionary intellectual-activists should, employing the sankofian dialectic, systematically and critically study their own history, culture, and struggle – pre-colonial, colonial, and neocolonial – with an eye toward anything and everything that could be employed in the present anti-imperial struggle. Wiredu’s words must be kept in mind, and Fanonian intellectual-activists should unceasingly encourage all intellectuals and academicians to rethink the contributions that non-European and/or so-called “underdeveloped” cultures could make, not merely to Marxism and other radical political theories, but to contemporary (i.e., twenty-first century) human culture and civilization in general. Fanon declared, “Today we are present at the stasis  of Europe,” and Eurocentric, capitalist economy-obsessed Marxism is an outgrowth of European thought and culture, which like Europe in general has reached an impasse (1968: 314). Fanon refused to bite his tongue, even among his (French, African, and other) Marxist comrades. Long before the postmodernists (and post-Marxists), Fanon noted Marxism’s “obscene narcissism” and pointed to the contradictions at its conceptual core:4

A permanent dialogue with oneself and an increasingly obscene narcissism never ceased to prepare the way for a half delirious state, where intellectual work became suffering and the reality was not at all that of a living man, working and creating himself, but rather words, different combinations of words, and the tensions springing from the meanings contained in words. Yet some Europeans were found to urge the European workers to shatter this narcissism and to break with this unreality. But in general, the workers of Europe have not replied to these calls; for the workers believe, too, that they are part of the prodigious adventure of the European spirit. (2004: 237)

Fanon’s critique of Marxism and the European/white proletariat did not stop here. As if defending his embrace and espousal of certain elements of Cesairean Negritude, Pan-Africanism, African nationalism, African socialism, and the African Legion project, Fanon dealt Eurocentric Marxists and white left-liberals a critical theoretical deathblow:

All the elements of a solution to the major problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But the action of European men has not carried out the mission which fell to them, and which consisted of bringing their whole weight violently to bear upon these elements, of modifying their arrangement and their nature, of changing them and finally of bringing the problem of mankind to an infinitely higher plane. (237)

In his unceasing efforts to bring “the problem of mankind to an infinitely higher plane,” Fanon challenged white supremacist colonialists and Eurocentric Marxists. Although obvious, it should be strongly stressed that Fanon took issue with both racial colonialism and Eurocentric radicalism. His work went even further to reveal that racially colonized intellectuals, racially colonized politicians, and the racially colonized bourgeoisie were willing to side with white supremacist colonialists if it meant that they could trade places or, at least, share the spoils with white supremacist colonialists and recolonize the nominally independent nation in their own nefarious neocolonial interests. However, Fanon acutely asserted: “Under the colonial system a bourgeoisie that accumulates capital is in the realm of the impossible. To our thinking, therefore, the historical vocation of an authentic national bourgeoisie in an underdeveloped country is to repudiate its status as bourgeois and an instrument of capital and to become entirely subservient to the revolutionary capital which the people represent” (98f).

As for those racially colonized intellectuals coming into a critical consciousness of (neo)colonialism, Fanon cautions them about their embrace of, and conceptual incarceration in, Eurocentric radicalism, Marxist or otherwise. Africa’s specific historicity, Africa’s particular experience of racial colonialism, and Europe’s incessant imperial efforts to de-Africanize and Europeanize Africa must be borne in mind and integrally incorporated into any theory that seeks to contribute to the liberation of Africa and its diaspora. Marxism does not now, and has never, claimed to speak to the special needs of Africa and Africans. This point should be emphasized, so that if (or, should I say, when) (neo)colonized African intellectuals begin to develop an anti-colonial critical consciousness and initiate their search for solutions to the problems of Africa and its diaspora, they will realize that although Marxism, among many other schools of European thought, may have much to offer black radicalism and Africana revolutionary praxis, none of these European approaches can serve as primary paradigms and theoretical points of departure for decolonization, re-Africanization, or planning for an authentic postcolonial Africa and its diaspora.

The analytic and theoretical boundaries of Marxism, thus, are too narrow to conceptually encompass Fanon’s radical politics and critical social theory, which includes critiques not only of racism, colonialism, and capitalism, but also of sexism (see the chapter “Feminist Fanonism” in Rabaka 2010b). Hence, Fanon actually extends and expands and, at times, epistemically explodes Marxism. He synthesizes it with the wider and too-often uncharted Africana world of ideas and the black radical tradition. Consequently, to uncritically categorize Fanon’s dialectical discursive formations and critical theory as “Marxism” (or even “black Marxism,” for that matter) and leave it there, is like attempting to force one’s feet into a pair of too-tight shoes simply because Marxists and others caught in the quagmires of Eurocentric critical theory think the shoes will look good. This is utterly unfair to Fanon, whose works and whose very words, when considered in their full context, defy the lazy labeling and simpleminded synopses of Marxists and other Eurocentrists. This is, precisely, why Melesse Ayalew (1975), Emmanuel Hansen (1977), Lewis Gordon (1995), L. Adele Jinadu (1986), Ato Sekyi-Otu (1996), Tsenay Serequeberhan (1994), Renate Zahar (1974) and I (Rabaka 2009 2010b), among others, consider Fanon more an imaginative “innovator” within the Marxist tradition and a too-often unrecognized rightful member of the Marxian pantheon than a mere disciple of Marxism – that is, I should importantly add, if he is to be considered a “Marxist” at all.

“Each Generation Must Out Of Relative Obscurity Discover Its Mission, Fulfill It, or Betray It”: Fanon and the Decolonization of Democratic Socialism

It is precisely insofar as he modified Marxism – or “stretched” it – that Fanon made his most enduring contributions both to the discourse on revolutionary decolonization and to Marxism, bringing them into critical dialogue in a way they had not been before and – except by Amilcar Cabral – have not been since. Inasmuch as socialism existed long before Karl Marx, and considering Wiredu’s, among others’, characterization of pre-colonial and traditional African societies as “communal,” it could very well be that Fanon – along with W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, and, to a certain extent, Leopold Senghor – was searching for a socialism suitable for Africa and its modern needs. In order for socialism, or any political economic system, to address the authentic human needs of Africa and Africans, it would have to be grounded in and grow out of Africa’s particular history and culture, Africa’s trans-ethnic conceptions of social organization, politics, ethics, and so on.5 Fanon firmly challenged the wretched of the earth’s revolutionary intellectual-activists to develop their own history-, culture-, and struggle- specific radical political and critical social theory to guide their revolutionary praxis:

The Third World ought not to be content to define itself in the terms of values which have preceded it. On the contrary, the underdeveloped countries ought to do their utmost to find their own particular values and methods and a style which shall be peculiar to them. The concrete problem we find ourselves up against is not that of a choice, cost what it may, between socialism and capitalism as they have been defined by men of other continents and of other ages…. Capitalist exploitation and cartels and monopoly are the enemies of underdeveloped countries… the choice of a socialist regime, a regime which is completely orientated toward the people as a whole and based on the principle that man is the most precious of all possessions, will allow us to go forward more quickly and more harmoniously, and thus make impossible that caricature of society where all economic and political power is held in the hands of a few who regard the nation as a whole with scorn and contempt. (2004: 56)

Fanon was, indeed, pro-socialist, but he was against Eurocentric conceptions of socialism being imposed or superimposed on Africa and Africans either by European or, it must be underscored, by African Marxists or so-called “black Marxists.”6 He saw “Marxist analysis” as part of “the colonial vocabulary,” which therefore needed to be called into question along with everything else in “the colonial situation” (Fanon 1968: 40, 43, 37). He was, to put it mildly, suspicious of the thought and texts that emanated from Europe, since it was Europeans that perpetually spoke of “the welfare of Man” yet “murder men everywhere they find them” (311f). He was, indeed, suspicious of Marx and his disciples’ chosen agents of social revolution, the metropolitan proletariat, particularly the white workers of Europe and America, who were purportedly destined to deal capitalism its deathblow. Fanon, in fact, had little or no faith in white workers rising up in revolution against capitalism because, as he observed above, “the [white] workers believe, too, that they are part of the prodigious adventure of the European spirit.” White workers, as well as white Marxists and the white bourgeoisie, simply did not – dare I say do not – understand a crucial historical and cultural fact: “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples” (102; see also Rodney 1970, 1972). And, if the European and European American Marxists should fix their faces to claim that they are well aware of all of this, then, the question remains: Why have they consistently neglected to factor colonialism and racism into their theories of socialist (or communist) revolution? This query, of course, leads to other critical questions, questions I – along with, it seems to me, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Julius Nyerere, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Samir Amin, Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Cedric Robinson, bell hooks, Cornel West, Manning Marable, Joy James and Robin Kelley, among many others – have long been asking: If colonialism and racism are finally factored into Marxian critical theories of contemporary society, then will the end goal of their (or, should I say, our) socialist (or communist) revolution remain an anti-capitalist classless society? Wouldn’t a new revolutionary agenda be needed, one that includes a telos of an anti-racist and anti-colonialist – as well as anti-capitalist – classless society? What about the distinct forms of domination and discrimination that women experience, especially in patriarchal capitalist societies? What of nonwhite women in white supremacist patriarchal colonial capitalist societies? What about homosexuals in heterosexist white supremacist patriarchal colonial capitalist societies? I am almost certain that my readers register the point that Fanon and I are making here. The critical questions are, literally, infinite when asked from the epistemically open and intensely elastic Africana critical theoretical framework.

Fanon was not fooled by the radical rhetoric of the Eurocentric Marxists. He stated, almost emphatically, that “truth” – meaning, that which is positive and progressive and in the anti-imperialist interests of the wretched of the earth – is precisely that which “hurries on the break-up of the colonialist regime” (50). It was only through the radical, nay, the revolutionary transformation of self and society that this “break-up” was to be achieved. However, and this is where and why Fanon, the African socialists, and the so-called “black Marxists” remain at odds with the orthodox and capitalist economy-obsessed Eurocentric Marxists, “the colonialist regime” is inseparable from the capitalist regime, and both the colonialist and capitalist regimes are utterly inextricable from the racist regime. To reiterate, Fanon, the African socialists, and the so-called “black Marxists” do not deny the pervasive and predatory nature of capitalism but they cannot in good conscience (or in “good faith,” as Sartre might have said) ignore the ravaging and retarding effects of racism; they cannot downplay and diminish the tragic historic fact that racial colonialism and neocolonialism have negatively impacted Africa and its diaspora at least as much as capitalism; and, finally, they cannot overlook the myriad ways in which racism, colonialism, and capitalism constantly intersect and interconnect in the life-worlds and lived experiences of the wretched of the earth.7

Marx asserted, as Fanon soon would, that in forging the revolution the oppressed change themselves, because the revolution requires and brings into being radical transformations of such massive proportions, that nothing existing in the “new” society remains as it was prior to the revolution. That is to say, the revolution that Marx envisioned, and the process(es) of revolutionary decolonization that Fanon conceived, were to be “total” and “complete,” and for Fanon, in contradistinction to Marx, “without any period of transition” (1968: 35).8 As the society is altered, so too are the individuals who collectively constitute that society. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels contended:

Both for the production on a mass scale of the Communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, in a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (1970: 87)

Revolution, according to Marx, was “necessary,” not merely for the forging and fostering of a new society, but for the development of new selves. His statement that “the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way” foreshadows Fanon. Oppressed people, to put it bluntly, have very few options; they either come to the painful conclusion that they are, or have been, forced to fight, or they succumb and sink back, deeper and deeper, into their present state(s) of dehumanization and neocolonization. Revolutionary decolonization was Fanon’s solution to “the colonial problem.” However, we are to be reminded here that he began his first book by stating: “I do not come with timeless truths” (Fanon 1967: 7). This means, quite simply, that Fanon foresaw the need for future generations of critical theorists to revise and re-theorize the concept of revolutionary decolonization in light of the existential issues and ills of their specific life-worlds and life-struggles. Fanon famously wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it” (1968: 206). It seems safe to say that “true” decolonization remains on our revolutionary agenda as we close the first decade of the twenty-first century, obliged, “out of relative obscurity,” to “discover [our] mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”


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1. For further discussion of the “sankofian dialectic,” see Rabaka 2010b: 190-93.

2. For a few of the more notable Marxist, orthodox and otherwise, interpretations of Fanon, see Ayalew (1975), Collins (1998), Forsythe (1973), W. Hansen (1997), Kipfer (2004), McCulloch (1983), Robinson (1993), Turner (1991), Wallerstein (1970), and Worsley (1972).

3. On this point, see of course Marx and Engels, but also the work of the Frankfurt School and other so-called “Western Marxists.” Rarely if ever do they write a single word concerning the ways in which capitalism ravages “the wretched of the earth,” that is, racially colonized peoples. This is precisely why the analyses and theories of Césaire, Senghor, and Cabral are of more relevance to our present discussion. These Africana intellectual-activists, among many others, attempted to grasp and grapple with not only capitalism, but also colonialism. Their work is, therefore, “critical theory” in the pervasive and most profound sense of the term. If the critical theory of the Frankfurt School was, as Kellner (1989) claims, developed as a critique of the crises of both capitalism and Marxism, then one of the major characteristics of Africana critical theory is that it serves as a critique of, and response to, the crises of not only capitalism and Marxism, but also colonialism and racism (see Rabaka 2007, 2008, 2010a; Robinson 2000, 2001). This is extremely important to point out, especially considering the fact the over 75% of the earth’s population and surface has been, and to a certain extent remains, racially colonized (Blaut 1993; Said 1979, 1993). This leads us to an extremely serious, yet simple question: Upon whose behalf were, and are, the Frankfurt School, as well as Frankfurt school-descended (especially, Habermasian) critical theorists, developing their theories? For earnest explorations of these, among other, questions, see Rabaka (2009, 2010b).

4. For further discussion of core contradictions in Marxism, see the solid critiques from the more or less neo-Marxists and post-Marxists in Callari et al. (1995), Magnus & Cullenberg (1995), and Nelson & Grossberg (1988).

5. There seems to be general agreement on this point, even though the discourse of African socialism is still developing and there is no consensus on the “correct” conception of socialism for Africa. See Camara (2008) and Rabaka (2009, 2010b).

6. Assimeng 1990; Camara 2008; Keller & Rothchild 1987; Ottaway 1986, Rodney 1981; see also the Journal of African Marxists.

7. Bogues 2003; Kelley 2002; Marable 1983, 1987, 1996; Mills 1987, 2003; Robinson 2000, 2001.

8. In “classical” Marxist theory, socialism is to serve as a transient or transitional state (or State) between capitalism and communism. Of course, the Russian revolution of 1917 led by Lenin skipped socialism and went straight to their own “Soviet-styled” communism, which many Marxists denounced as not being an authentic communism at all. For a discussion, see Gottlieb (1992) and Kellner (1989). For a direct critique of Soviet Marxism from a major Western Marxist, see Marcuse (1958), and especially the 1985 Columbia University reprint which has an excellent introduction by Douglas Kellner that helps to situate the text in the social and political climate in which it was produced.

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