The legacy of The Wretched of the Earth is entwined with that of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the introduction to the first edition of the book when it was published in French in 1961. Sartre was an extremely influential philosopher in France, where he championed Marxist causes. Most importantly, Sartre was a key figure in existentialism, a school of philosophical thought that emphasized the actions of men as the basis of philosophy. Existentialism values the freedom of humans to create their own world; it believes the world starts with the free actions of human individuals.
Given Fanon’s interest in the colonized creating their own world, it is no surprise Sartre was a fan of The Wretched of the Earth. But given his existentialist inclinations, Sartre was most excited about what Fanon had to say about violence, in particular the role violence plays in asserting the agency of the colonized. As Neil Roberts explains Sartre’s reading of Fanon: “Violence is fundamentally an activity emerging from the category of agency. Agency here refers to one's ability to act. Beyond simple questions of acquiring control or potency, it involves a person's ability to make decisions” (143). In turn, according to Sartre, Fanon’s emphasis on violence suggests a path to freedom that the human rights discourse of the time was unable, or unwilling, to consider. Instead of asking for abstract rights, the colonized were acting concretely to express their freedom.
Sartre’s emphasis on violence, however, distorted the readings many had of The Wretched of the Earth. Violence is only one part of the larger decolonizing vision Fanon advocates, and it tends to distract from the other things Fanon says about the importance of culture and national consciousness. In the 1960s, these other facets of Fanon’s analysis were often overlooked, and the book was instead embraced by a generation of young activists as a justification of violent protest. For this reason, the eminent philosopher Hannah Arendt attacked the book, arguing against violence. Homi Bhaba paraphrases the situation: “Hannah Arendt’s assault on the book in the late sixties was an attempt at staunching the wildfire it spread across university campuses, while she readily acknowledged that it was really Sartre’s preface that glorified violence beyond Fanon’s words or wishes” (xxi).
There is another problem with Sartre’s introduction, and it is hinted at in the situation of his ideas spreading like “wildfire across university campuses.” The problem is that many of these campuses—in Europe and in the United States—were never meant to be an audience to the book. As Judith Butler remarks, The Wretched of the Earth was intended as a book by a colonized person to and for colonized people. Sartre’s introduction, in contrast, “is less a conversation among the colonizers than an exhortation of one to the other, asking the European to read as one would listen to a conversation that is not meant for one” (4). Thus, at the same time that Sartre emphasizes the importance of decolonization, he seems to co-opt the colonized voice to serve European, instead of African, purposes.
Although Sartre’s introduction continues to be published in English-language editions of The Wretched of the Earth, it has not been included in French editions since 1967. That was the year that Fanon’s widow removed it from publication. Her reasoning was that Sartre had begun to support pro-Zionist movements in Israel, which she thought was in contradiction to many of the anti-colonial philosophies of the book. In either case, Sartre had already influenced the reception of the book, and he continues to be one of Fanon’s most widely ready interpreters.