Classic book: The Wretched of the Earth

Richard Pithouse on The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

April 14, 2012
5 min read

In 1961 Frantz Fanon dictated most of his last book, Les Damnés de la Terre, translated as The Wretched of the Earth, from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis. He was 36 years old and dying of leukaemia. The disease had recently blinded him for some weeks but he managed to complete the book in ten weeks in a race against death.

Fanon, who was from Martinique in the Caribbean, had ended up Tunisia after he joined the Algerian national liberation movement in 1954. He had joined the Free French Forces fighting the Nazis as a teenager and, as a result, had been able to study medicine in France after the war. He had specialised in psychiatry and had taken a post in a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria.

Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, was written when he was a student in France and published in 1952. He was 27. It remains an arrestingly original work in which a poetic form of expression and philosophical and literary erudition are woven into a profound and moving examination of the lived experience of racism. From this first book Fanon’s politics were rooted in a radical humanism, with a commitment, in his words, to ‘recognise the open door of every consciousness’. It remains a canonical text in critical race studies and a book that continues to inspire people around the world.

Fanon’s second book, A Dying Colonialism, was published in 1959. It deals with what he called the mutations in culture as people become mobilised in an anti-colonial war. Anyone who has been able to participate in a genuine mass mobilisation will immediately recognise the value and accuracy of his description of how social relations can change in struggle.

The Wretched of the Earth draws on Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as well as his travels around Africa as an ambassador for the Algerian national liberation movement. It begins with an account of the colonial city, ‘this world divided in two’, and goes on to examine the internalisation of colonial violence among the oppressed, the resulting violence among the oppressed, and the moment when violence is turned back on colonial oppression.

Fanon then turns his critical attention towards anti‑colonial resistance, stressing that in the colonial situation Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ and paying particular attention to the political agency of ordinary people, including peasants and the urban poor. He is committed to forms of struggle that are genuinely mass-based and participatory.

The book’s third focus is an examination of the pathologies of the regimes that came to power in Africa after colonialism. In Fanon’s estimation they took over rather than undid colonial systems, demobilised the mass movements that had brought them to power and used their own political credibility to entrench authoritarian and predatory regimes. Against this, still committed to a radical humanism, he posed a refusal of technocratic approaches to development and the full involvement of the people in both political and economic life. The final chapter of the book, drawing on Fanon’s case notes from his period as a psychiatrist in Algeria, investigates the damage done to human beings by colonialism and violence.

The Wretched of the Earth was banned on publication in France and copies were seized from bookshops. But it was heralded in radical black circles in the US and taken up in places such as Iran and Sri Lanka. Fifty years later it remains the key text in radical circles in South Africa, where it is regularly cited by grass-roots militants.

Initial readings of the book often caricatured Fanon’s endorsement of violence against colonial regimes. Fanon’s support for violent struggle was often read outside the context of the extraordinary violence of French colonialism in Algeria and there has been a racist double standard in which Fanon is excoriated for endorsing violent struggle while white intellectuals, such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, are not subject to the same condemnation. Although he had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Free French Forces, Fanon had a personal horror of violence and was acutely aware of the damage that it can do to individuals and societies.

Many of the misreadings of The Wretched of the Earth are due to the way the book is developed as an unfolding narrative in which consciousness changes in the vortex of struggle. Statements affirmed with unqualified emphasis at one point are often questioned later on. This means that the book has to be read as a whole to be properly understood and that simply taking isolated quotes or extracts will not give an accurate impression of the author’s intentions.

Fanon left this world as The Wretched of the Earth entered it. Fifty years on, his final book retains an extraordinary political charge in countries where it remains necessary to oppose both new forms of colonial or neo-colonial power and new forms of elite accommodation with that power in the name of the nation.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


24