The Wretched of the Earth

The Wretched of the Earth Summary

The Wretched of the Earth is Frantz Fanon’s seminal discussion of decolonization in Africa, especially Algeria. Over the course of five chapters, Fanon covers a wide range of topics, including patterns in how the colonized overthrow the colonist, how newly independent countries form national and cultural consciousness, and the overall effect of colonialism on the psychology of men and women in colonized countries. Fanon’s discussion is both theoretical and journalistic. That is, he both reports on events in the recent history of decolonization, and theorizes what these events mean or could mean philosophically.

In Chapter 1, “On Violence,” Fanon introduces the colonial world as one that is divided into the colonist and the colonized. These identities are created by the colonist in order to assert his own superiority. The colonist maintains this hierarchy through violence by police and soldiers, and in turn, it is only through violence that the colonized can re-assert their own humanity. Decolonization is a violent process not only of overthrowing a colonial government, but of freeing the colonized from the mindset imposed upon them. At first, this anticolonial violence is sporadic, usually irrupting spontaneously in the rural areas of a colonized country. But in time, as violence awakens the masses to the injustices of colonialism, more and more fight back and soon the colonized people as a whole begin to fight colonialism.

During this stage of decolonization, as Fanon discusses in Chapter 2, the colonized may form a number of political organizations. The colonized elites in urban areas—intellectuals and owners of businesses—may form political parties, but these tend to ignore the needs and desires of the colonized in rural areas, where the majority of the colonized population actually lives. Similarly, the colonized workers in cities may unionize and stage strikes in order to improve their working conditions, but this, too, is limited and does not include the rural masses. The true revolution is eventually led by the masses who have discovered that, through violence, they can liberate their souls at the same time that they fight colonial oppression.

In Chapter 3, Fanon discusses how these different groups—the urban elite, urban workers, and rural fighters—get together to form a nation after independence from the colonists. Unfortunately, the nation does not just automatically cohere after independence. In fact, businessmen and landowners often try to grab for more power after independence, seeking to overtake the positions previously held by the colonists instead of eliminating such hierarchical positions of power altogether. They re-create colonial situations in the decolonized nation. Protesting against this pattern, Fanon calls for the education of people across the entire nation so that they may come together for rational discussion and debate about the future of the nation.

After this largely narrative discussion in chapters 1–3, which goes from life under colonialism to the fight against colonialism to establishing a nation after colonialism, Fanon approaches things more thematically in Chapters 4–5. Chapter 4 is about national “culture,” and how intellectuals relate to culture under colonialism and while fighting colonialism. Fanon tracks a trajectory among intellectuals, who move from wanting to mimic European culture, to claiming the superiority of African culture, to, finally, contributing to the national fight against colonization. For Fanon, culture must be a part of the fight for nationalism.

In Chapter 5, Fanon draws upon his research as a psychiatrist in Algeria in the 1950s to describe the psychological disorders colonialism produces in both the colonist and the colonized. Because colonialism teaches the colonized that they are evil and even subhuman, the colonized are always questioning reality, leading to a number of psychoses including depression and anxiety disorders. At the same time, because the colonial world is a violent world, people living in it may have post-traumatic disorders in which they develop homicidal tendencies or are predisposed to psychotic breaks. Refugees, those who have been sent to internment camps, and those who have been tortured also exhibit a number of psychological symptoms. Fanon concludes by arguing that getting rid of colonialism will get rid of the source of these neuroses and pathologies, and therefore will liberate the “personality” of man in addition to his nation.