FRANTZ FANON  AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF VIOLENT REVOLUTION

  By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

                                     

 Frantz Fanon was one of those psychiatrists, philosophers and political activists of twentieth century who inspired many political leaders and movements to bring revolution in their communities and countries. His book The Wretched of the Earth became a bible for the revolutionaries all over the world. That book has been translated in more than eighteen languages and has been sold more than a million copies in English only. The book has an introduction written by Jean Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist philosopher. In this letter I will share with you a few glimpses of life and philosophy of that extra-ordinary man that he shared in his most insightful and profound book.

          Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925 and died at an early age of forty because of cancer. He received his training in psychiatry in France. While he was working in a psychiatric hospital looking after Algerian rebels he identified with those rebels to such an extent that he resigned from his job and joined the Algerian liberation movement. Later on he wrote books reflecting on his professional and political experiences and shared his observations and insights.

          Fanon believed that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (Ref 1 p 35) because in that process one political system is completely replaced with another. Since its aim is far more than reforming the system, it could not take place with peaceful means. He based his theory on the hypothesis that de-colonization is an attempt to undo colonization and since colonization is a violent phenomenon in which imperialistic and colonial powers exploit, manipulate and dehumanize the native people, the de-colonization attempts to undo that process and purge all the violence that natives have absorbed over the years, decades and centuries. That is the only way for them to be free and liberate themselves.

          Fanon systematically describes all the psychological stages of the transformation of colonization and then de-colonization. He states that in the colonization process the colonial powers suppress and oppress the native through police and army. On the surface these oppressive organizations are supposed to keep peace but in reality they suppress people’s voices and repress people’s feelings and that oppression, suppression and repression either causes depression or dissent. Consequently those people who decide to change their social and political situation and bring revolution have to accept violence. They realize that in many cases the conditions have to get worse before they get better and the colonial authorities would escalate violence before they give up power and control and these people and organizations have to face those harsh realities and pay sacrifices believing that the ends would justify the means.

          Fanon highlights that when we visit these colonies we come across two parts of town:

A, the rich, prosperous and affluent part that is inhabited by settlers

and

B, the poor, underdeveloped and underprivileged part inhabited by the natives.

In such a dichotomy the class differences join hands with race issues. On one side of the town we see a rich race of British, French or Americans while on the other side of the town we witness a poor race of Asians, Arabs, Africans or Latin Americans. He states, “The cause is the consequence, you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.” (Ref 1 p 40)

          Fanon believed that to justify their oppression, the oppressors usually use religion, as ‘a reference to divine right is necessary to legitimize this statutory difference.’ (Ref 1 p 40). They rationalize their inhumane treatment of natives by calling it God’s will and promising the poor a prosperous life hereafter, a heaven. But the revolutionary wants to see a heaven on earth. He wants to face reality rather than live in fantasy. He prefers to live in a wise man’s hell than a fool’s paradise. He knows he has to accept harsh realities before he can transform them into peaceful and just traditions.

          Fanon brings to our attention that the colonial powers use language that presents natives as animals, beasts and uncivilized. They make fun of the traditions, dresses and religions of native people. They even portray them as evil. Their attitude ‘dehumanizes the native’. (Ref 1 p 42) Colonial powers pretend as if they are trying to liberate or save the natives on the name of religion or democracy, offering them spiritual or political salvation. They even expect the natives to thank them for their autocratic and patronizing attitudes. But such an attitude makes the natives angry and frustrated and over the years that anger is transformed into hatred and when they get ready to liberate themselves they are full of revenge. They have to get rid of their pent up anger for decades and centuries and that anger takes the form of different kinds of violence. By getting rid of that hatred they also get rid of not only of the language, culture and religion, but also many traditions and values imposed on them by the oppressor. “In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them and vomit them up.” (Ref 1 p 43)

          Fanon states that the natives in the process of revolt and revolution develop a ‘social consciousness’ (Ref 1 p 49) and are willing to offer personal sacrifices for communal gain. They are willing to sacrifice their distressing todays for peaceful tomorrows. They hope for a day when the settlers and natives, the oppressors and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, the haves and have nots, will be treated equally. They dream of fair and just societies so that their children and grandchildren can have better lives than their parents and grandparents.

          Fanon discusses in his book how natives start feeling guilty because they are blamed and persecuted by the settlers as they are judged by the colonial powers. Such a guilt complex is very dangerous for the mental health of the natives. Such guilt undermines the self-respect and self worth of the natives and after a while they start disliking themselves and even start resenting and hating each other. Such feelings give birth to self-derogatory comments and rivalries between groups. Such guilt feelings also give rise to violent reactions between different ethnic, racial and religious organizations. “The colonized man will first manifest his aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people. This is the period when the niggers beat each other up….” (Ref 1 p 52) Fanon helps us understand the dynamics of such anger, resentment and hate which is turned inwards emotionally and socially. Finally when such hate is expressed towards the oppressor the victim projects his negative feelings and acts out his unconscious wish to become the prosecutor as he identifies with the aggressor. “The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.” (Ref 1 p 53)

          Fanon discusses the reality that the relationship between the native and the settler is not personal. In most circumstances they do not interact with each other in the homes, in the offices or in the streets as they live in segregated communities but the natives are daily affected by the rules and laws made by the oppressor, the laws that are unjust and inhumane. That is why the revolt of the native is systemic and “the settler-native relationship is a mass relationship.” (Ref 1 p 53)

          Over a period of the time the natives realize that they are traveling on the path of self-destruction. If they do not change their course of action they might get annihilated by “mass destruction” so they decide to destroy the oppressor rather than destroying themselves. Their leaders make them believe that by destroying the oppressors they would taste independence and freedom and become masters of their own destiny. But to get on the other side they have to cross the river of blood, knowing very well that some might drown and never reach the peaceful shore. Gradually each native becomes involved in shaping and transforming his personal and social reality. “The native discovers reality and transforms it into a pattern of his customs, into the practice of violence and into his plan of freedom.”(Ref 1 p 58)

          Fanon had great insights not only into the psyche of working class and suffering natives but also in their middle class intellectuals. Those people have a philosophical dissonance between their words and action. They might make fiery speeches or write revolutionary poems but when it comes to violent demonstrations they stay home and talk of peaceful reforms. That is why Fanon wrote, “They are violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes.” (Ref 1 p 59) Such people have nice middle class jobs and are comfortable in their lifestyles. It is only the underprivileged people that realize that they cannot go on suffering so they decide to join the violent movement. The poor peasants and struggling workers realize that they would benefit the most by the revolution. “The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays.” (Ref 1 p 61). He realizes that colonialism and de-colonization are both violent phenomenon. “…colonization is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” (Ref 1 p 61)

          After natives realize that all peaceful talks and negotiations are futile they decide the only road to freedom, the road of armed struggle and violence. That is the stage they join a revolutionary movement and show willingness not only to die but also to kill as they get convinced that they would be reborn as free citizens after they kill their oppressor. That is stage where revolution embraces violence at a massive scale because their leaders have convinced them that freedom cannot be achieved without direct action and violence. That is the stage of final sacrifices.

          At such a stage the colonial and imperialistic powers become nervous and threatened so they chose those natives who are intellectuals and religious and ask them to give religious and spiritual sermons asking people to be patient and offer the other cheek and wait for the other world to be rewarded. But the revolutionaries have crossed a line and they have reached a stage of no return. The stronger the revolutionaries become the weaker the oppressors feel.

          When the gentle and nice talk of sermons do not work the oppressors jail and kill a couple of revolutionary leaders hoping that it would scare their followers not realizing that the revolt has reached a stage of no return. When that does not work the desperate oppressors gather the police and the military and threaten the masses that if they opposed the colonial regime there would be a civil war in which thousands of innocent civilians would be killed and massacred. The revolutionaries are aware that there has to be escalation of violence before it finally ends, the violence that was initiated by the settlers. The revolutionaries also realize that escalation of violence and military oppression also reflect the desperation. They intuitively it is the beginning of the end of colonization.

          Finally the armed struggle comes in full force with a belief that ‘violence alone will free them.” (Ref p 73) On the other hand the oppressors try to brainwash the natives that they are so naïve and inexperienced that they would not be able to run their own country and would fall apart. Colonial powers do not realize that those communities had a history of hundreds of years of their own traditions before they became colonies by their foreign masters.

          Fanon highlights that after the second world war America started walking on the footsteps of European colonial powers and trying to convince the leaders and common men and women of Asia, Africa and Latin America that she is the symbol of liberty and freedom and independence without sharing her hidden desire to become the next colonial power for their political and economic gains. America does not realize that those colonies have become fed up of being raped by foreign powers and now they are full of rage and hatred. They realize that America want dictators that would tow their line and would not respect those democratically elected leaders that would challenge and confront America. America is only interested in puppet governments but give the illusion of human rights. “The United States is not afraid today of stating officially that they are the defenders of the right of all peoples to self-determination” (Ref 1 p 79) not realizing that American military and ambassadors are not welcome anywhere and if they forced themselves on other countries they would be welcome with fists and stones and bullets of “murderous guerrillas” (Ref 1 p 79) rather than with smiles. America like all other colonial powers have to realize that they are no longer welcome in other countries where common people do not want to be manipulated as they want to live with freedom and dignity. Those countries that are weak, poor and vulnerable look up to the self sufficient and independent nations. “It is true to say that independence has brought moral compensation to colonized peoples, and has established their dignity.” (Ref 1 p 81)

          Many people from colonial powers do not realize that the masters have given the lesson of violence to their slaves and the oppressors have become the role models for the oppressed. The settlers get surprised when they see the natives violent. They very conveniently call the freedom fighters as terrorists without realizing that “the existence of an armed struggle shows that the people are decided to trust to violent methods only. ? He of whom they have never stopped anything that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force. In fact, as always, the settler has shown him the way he could take if he is to become free.” (Ref 1 p 84)

          Fanon presents the hypothesis that the reaction is equal and opposite to action. The violence in the de-colonization process is directly related to the intensity of violence in the colonial process. The oppressors reap what their forefathers had been sowing for generations because “the development of violence among the colonized people will be proportionate to the violence exercised by the threatened colonial regime.” (Ref 1 p 89)

          Fanon had the experience of Algerian revolution in which he was an active participant. He had seen thousands of people killed in that struggle. He had closely observed the cycle of violence when he wrote, “Terror, counter-terror, violence, counter-violence, that is what observes bitterly record when they describe the cycle of hate, which is so tenacious and so evident in Algeria.” (Ref 1 p 89)

          For Fanon the native reaches such a violent state of consciousness where he believes that he can be only reborn as a free human being if he kills his oppressor. In his act of murder he finds the secret of rebirth. For some it might be a myth, but for Fanon it was a psychological reality. He stated, “For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler.” (Ref 1 p 93)

          Fanon believed that the violence of native not only gives him a new life but also ‘restores his self-respect’. He believed that in twentieth century the oppressed, the colonized people all over the world realized that the tide has to be turn and colonial powers would no longer be tolerated. Twentieth century is the century of revolt and revolution. There is a global consciousness that is increasing every day and the people living in the colonies are bringing to the world’s attention that “The well- being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians and the yellow races. We have decided not to overlook this anymore.” (Ref 1 p 96)

          Fanon believed that if Europe and America did not respect people and governments of Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America then the cycle of violence will continue till there is mutual respect between communities and countries and the exploitation and oppression does not come to an end.

          Dear Friends, Watching the political changes in the last few decades it seems to me that the statements that Fanon made in early 1960s were not only insightful and profound but also prophetic. He seems to be an excellent political diagnostician. Philosophers and political activists might disagree with his conclusions and interpretations but cannot ignore his keen observations and descriptions of the dynamics of the native-settler relationship. Fanon seemed to be one the great minds who shared with us his understanding of the psyche of violent revolutions and revolutionaries. Fanon dreamt of a world where the cycle of violence and hate would end and human beings would learn to live peacefully and justly. Fanon believed that it would only happen when colonial powers would acknowledge what they have done over the decades and then be ready to help in the rehabilitation of the humanity by respecting all human beings individually and nationally and not try to change them on the name of religion and democracy. Such an attitude “…expects from those who for centuries have kept it in slavery is that they will help it to rehabilitate mankind, and make man victorious every-where, once and for all.” (Ref 1 p 106)

                                                                  

December 2003

                                                REFERENCE

Fanon Frantz…The Wretched of the Earth

 

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