Frantz Fanon, Studies in a Dying Colonialism, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1965.
Faced with the seemingly irrational, the modern man of reason seeks the explanation beneath. This was the course of Marx and Freud and this is the course of Frantz Fanon. The Algerian patient who neglects his medicine, the educated young Moslem girl who insists on wearing the veil – these are the seeming irrationalities. And for Fanon the explanation is very simple.
The perspective of the colonized is different from that of the colonizer. What is in the interest of the one is not necessarily in the interest of the other. It may be that, since “in the colonial situation, going to see the doctor, the administrator, the constable or the mayor are identical moves,” the colonized is reluctant to see the doctor and mistrusts his counsel.
Furthermore, the perspective of both colonized and colonizer may change over time. In particular, the truths of the time when colonial power reigned relatively supreme are different from those when colonial rule is challenged by a nationalist movement fighting for independence. Fanon cites the case of the radio. At first regarded by Europeans in Algeria as “a link with the civilized world” and by Algerians as “a technique in the hands of the occupier,” the radio became quite a different matter when the Algerian revolution began. It now exposed the uneasiness of the occupier, became the means of obtaining news from non-French sources. The Voice of Fighting Algeria unified the people. From a weapon of the enemy it became a vital instrument of Algerian nationalism. Even the psychopathology of individuals reflected the change. Before 1954 (the year of the beginning of the Algerian revolution), Algerian hallucinations often included “highly aggressive and hostile radio voices.” After 1956, “the radio voices became protective, friendly.”
Fanon’s point is very simple, very old, and very powerful. It is that social actions can only be appreciated in the context of the whole society. Norms and values can only be evaluated if we see how adherence to them affects the relative power of the various forces at play. Actions which support the status quo are not rational from the viewpoint of those who suffer disadvantages under the status quo.
This is a book of combat, written in “the fifth year of the Algerian revolution” (the original title in French) by a man who refused to remain a bystanding technician (Fanon, born in Martinique, was serving as a psychiatrist in Algeria, at the time the war broke out) and went to the hills to join the maquis and eventually to become the ideologist of the revolution and of the Third World. He went to the hills because of his profound conviction “of the impossibility of finding a meeting ground in any colonial situation.” This, he tells us, is the “heart of the drama.”
But this is a scientific work as well, written by a man of science arguing testable and defensible hypotheses to explain an important segment of social reality, the behaviour of oppressed men in combat.
If Fanon has become an intellectual of world renown since his early and untimely death in 1961, it is because he combines passion, lucidity and relevance. It is tempting to enshrine his wisdom but it would defeat the very spirit of Fanon’s polemic to do so. He preached two things: that man, both in ideas and in actions, is a creature of the society in which he lives, and hence no ideas, no actions have per se immutable and eternal worth and that man is capable of individual and collective self-improvement, and hence all idea and all actions, however correct or virtuous, are to be surpassed.
The spirit of the Enlightenment has passed to new hands- more widely dispersed geographically than in the 18th century, more subtle in the formulations they use, more aware of the enemies they meet. It may still be too early for this spirit to prevail. Fanon has laboured mightily to keep it alive.