The Wretched of the Earth

Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” and the Battle of Algiers

In his The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon controversially argues in favor of controlled violence in decolonization struggles and similar revolutions.

Fanon claims that violence is a “necessity” and that its use serves as a “positive function” in the creation of a national identity in a post-colonial state.

Fanon’s argument indeed appears sound and thorough. It would appear to corroborate a number of case studies we have analyzed over the semester that treat the importance of the overturning of resident power structures with the greater interest of changing an unjust society.

Such examples include the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party cadre with the peasants in Dragon’s Village, who sought to shatter the ancient structures of power that left the Chinese peasantry to remain docile and hopeless when approached with the ideas that they could change their living conditions.

Furthermore, Fanon’s controversial claim that not only is violence a necessity, but that it also serves as a positive function to the development of a nation’s psyche, might likewise be corroborated by Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli.

In the book, Levi articulates that the peasants of southern Italy had no sense of national identity, let alone patriotism or pride in their country. If a hypothetical case similar to that of The Battle of Algiers were to occur in fascist Italy, one could argue that the utilization of controlled violence, channeled through a leadership organization, might similarly help create a sense of national identity and national unity that the peasants of southern Italy had historically lacked. While Fanon’s argument is thorough and would appear to be a very accurate assessment of the struggles involved with decolonization, I personally find a number of aspects of his argument difficult to accept morally, and thus I am led to question whether Fanon’s thesis is the “end-all” approach to revolutionary and decolonization efforts, or rather required in the more dire and extreme of cases.

Fanon’s controversial theory on revolutionary struggle is more than pertinent to this past semester, as Fanon mentions early in his book the necessity to transform struggles “from peasant revolt to revolutionary war”. We have studied a number of cases thus far that have treated the utter failures of peasant revolts which employ acts of indiscriminate violence and murder on the basis of revenge and hatred, rather than with some sort of progressive end-goal in mind. Fanon’s argument makes sense, but is incredibly difficult for me to personally accept as the hands-down how-to on revolutionary struggles.

Admittedly torn, I attempt to reconcile the contending arguments within me by looking at some of the cases we have studied over the semester. On the one hand, there are cases such as China in Dragon’s Village and Italy in Christ Stopped at Eboli, as previously referenced. Furthermore, cases such as Liberty suggest that it is perhaps necessary to employ violence to overturn the unjust structure of power, but that a group of organized leaders are required so that the violence is appropriately channeled, something that Fanon refers to as “never regrettable”. On the other hand, there are cases of successful nonviolent revolutionary struggle, such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Civil Rights movement in 20th-century America. In these instances, controlled violence was not employed by the leadership of the revolution; rather, such leadership groups served as examples to others through their actions of nonviolence.

To what degree is violence a “necessity”?

Perhaps it is possible that Fanon’s thesis on the necessary utilization of controlled violence pertains strictly in worse-case-scenarios, in the most dire and desperate of anti-colonial struggles. In the revolutionary battle against French occupation in Algeria, the native Algerians were in an extremely disadvantaged position, having to convince Paris against a number of traditional policies. Firstly, France had to be convinced that it no longer had a vested interest in Algeria as a colony. Secondly, Paris had to be persuaded that it was advantageous to abandon the thousands of native French-Algerians who lived in the colony, many French families having generations spent there and called the colony their home. As if those two objectives would not be difficult enough, France had also just recently lost a precious colony in the South Pacific, and was determined to maintain the rest of its colonies – at any cost. And so, the odds were greatly stacked against the native Algerians.

Perhaps the Algerian case was such a desperate scenario that the implementation of controlled violence was indeed a necessity.

The FLN lacked the necessary military materials and financial resources to carry out a legitimate revolutionary war against France, contrary to the American colonies’ revolutionary struggle against Imperial Britain. And so it was necessary for them to carry out their struggle by clandestine means such as guerrilla warfare. While such a form of violence could certainly be accepted as justifiable, I am adamantly opposed to any revolutionary group’s implementation of terrorism against innocent civilians, be they Algerian insurgents or American minutemen (not that I know of any particular instances of terrorism occurring during the Revolutionary War).

Fanon presents a very controversial argument which the use of controlled violence as a necessity in anti-colonial, revolutionary struggles. Fanon also claims that violence is serves a “positive function” in the creation of a national identity in a post-colonial state. Fanon’s thesis appears to substantiate some case studies we have discussed, such as in Dragon’s Village, and possibly even Christ Stopped at Eboli. However, even with that said I personally find the argument that violence is always a necessity, never regrettable and a positive function incredibly difficult to stomach.

While perhaps violence is necessary in some cases of revolutionary struggle, I believe that Fanon’s thesis is more necessary to be applied to the most dire and extreme of cases, such as French-Algeria.

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