Fanon begins The Wretched of the Earth by considering the identifies of colonizer and colonized. He argues that the colonizer “fabricates” the colonized subject, which means that colonizers create the colonized identity. The colonizer creates an entire mindset of submission and inferiority on the part of the colonized. In turn, to decolonize means creating “new men,” people with an entirely different mindset, one suited to freedom rather than submission.
Because the colonial world is strictly divided between the colonist and colonized, it is what Fanon callas a “Manichaean world.” That means a world cut into white and black, good and evil, with no room for complexity. The colonist depicts the colonized as absolutely evil, and sometimes goes so far as to depict the colonized as subhuman or a mere animal. The colonized are lumped into this one category of brute evil, which means forms of difference within that category—like gender, religion, and class—get erased. But this can also be a resource for those who fight against colonialism. People can organize around a national or racial consciousness, coming together and uniting in coalition to fight the colonized.
Fanon considers the different means by which the colonizer creates colonized subjects and maintains power over them. In more capitalist Western societies, like England and France, the exploited members of a society are kept in submission through education, religion, and morality. The working classes, for instance, are taught that having less power is part of the natural order of society. But in colonized societies, Fanon argues, submission is maintained by more overt exercises of power. The colonized are “kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm.” In other words, colonial police, soldiers, and their threats of violence, more than education or ideology, keep the colonized in submission.
One consequence of this is that decolonization must also turn to violence, according to Fanon. Overhauling the colonial world, in which men are divided into good and evil according to their status as colonist or colonizer, is a violent process. According to Fanon, men always have violent urges—urges to use their “muscular power”—but under colonialism these urges tend to be repressed or redirected. Men have “muscular dreams” where they fly or fight beasts, but these are only dreams at night instead of practices during the day. During waking life, men might find physical release in dance or tribal rituals. In these cases, violent urges are redirected away from a mission to fight colonialism. But during decolonization, when a fight for liberation begins, people lose interest in rituals, and start fighting their own oppression.
So once decolonization gets underway, violence starts to get directed at the colonists themselves, who are no longer the only ones using violence against the colonized. At first, the colonists might try different strategies to contain the colonized. They might turn to education or technology. But Fanon says the colonized tend to be “impervious” to such persuasions or bribes. This is because the colonized primarily care about land, the source of their wealth from agriculture. The colonized will fight to have their land back under their control.
Moreover, the very capitalist system that first led the colonists to colonized land in order to extract their resources ends up working against the colonists. The global market needs constantly to expand. Since the colonized represent a possible market, as colonization proceeds the colonized themselves slowly become consumers, gaining economic power. This threatens the absolute supremacy of the colonist.
This is just one example of the ways in which the means of power exercised by the colonists end up working against them. Another way is when the Manichean mindset of the colonist gets reversed: now, the colonized depict the colonist as absolute evil. Fanon also reiterates that the colonists, who tried to use force and violence to control the colonized, now also experience force and violence as a threat to their power. Fanon describes a sort of domino effect of violence as well: once the colonized in one village use violence against the colonists, word spreads and soon there are more uprisings, more violent revolts. Violence unites people across regions and tribes. Moreover, it has a “cleansing force,” purging individuals of their inferiority complex and their former passivity. From violence emerges a unified fight against the colonists and the creation of a new, active, and liberated subjectivity to replace the earlier colonized subjectivity of submission and passivity.
Fanon ends his first chapter by commenting on how this colonial fight fits into a larger global picture. We have already seen that, for Fanon, global capitalism implicitly supports decolonization because it wants consumers in the colonies. But how does anticolonial violence—or a war on colonialism—fit into the larger Cold War that was raging between capitalism and communism when Fanon wrote? This is what Fanon argues: “An end must be put to this cold war that gets us nowhere, the nuclear arms race must be stopped and the underdeveloped regions must receive generous investments and technical aid. The fate of the world depends on the response given to this question.” In other words, capitalism would be better off investing in the colonies and helping them develop than it would be in waging a war against a perceived communist threat.
This provocative opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth displays many of the characteristic features of Fanon’s writing style. His language is vivid and sweeping, capturing much of the revolutionary spirit in which he is writing. At the same time, his writing has the tendency to jump around; there are frequent section breaks, and at no point does Fanon ever give a roadmap to the ideas to come. This, too, suggests some of Fanon’s revolutionary zeal. Rather than writing a textbook or neatly structured argument, Fanon is writing a polemic, and the writing reflects the urgency of his ideas.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the chapter doesn’t have arguments or that Fanon fails to provide evidence for his claims. In fact, Fanon makes an important and carefully interrelated set of arguments, each of which intervenes into the “common sense” theories people may have about decolonization. One such theory is Marxism, which Fanon singles out as being too focused on class to be able to see that, in colonial contexts, race is the primary axis of discrimination and inequality. By saying the fundamental division in the colonies is between colonist and colonized, Fanon in fact completely overturns the foundation of Marxism, which had inspired other revolutionaries earlier in the twentieth century. In the decades after Fanon, similar critiques would also be made about a revolutionary focus on class alone. Just as Fanon calls our attention to race, feminists, for instance, would call our attention to how gender structures society over and above class.
In order to make his case, Fanon blends journalism and philosophy. It is important to remember that Fanon was both a witness to many of the atrocities of the Algerian War of Independence and was a trained doctor and intellectual who had been immersed in many of the Black cultural movements of his time. The Wretched of the Earth tries to synthesize these two sources of experience. It refers historical affairs and the unfolding events of the war to philosophical ideas of freedom and phenomenology. This is especially evidenced in his prolonged discussion of Manichaeism and how a dualistic worldview both perpetuates colonialism and leads to its demise.
At the same time, Fanon also shows in this chapter an understanding of global issues beyond the colonial context. In the 1950s, much of the West was as focused on the Cold War as on decolonization. Fanon’s intervention on this front was to show how colonialism and decolonization were centrally an issue of the Cold War that, for instance, capitalist countries had no choice but to confront. In this way, Fanon shows himself to be both of his time and to have an expansive and cosmopolitan perspective on the issues he faces. This also allows him to apply his critique of colonialism to a critique of the Cold War. As Homi Bhaba has remarked on The Wretched of the Earth, the Cold War, by dividing the world into capitalist and communist countries, “repeats the Manichaean structure of possession and dispossession experienced in the colonial world” (xxvi). It is this kind of dualist thinking that Fanon invites us to abandon.
However, there should perhaps be a qualification to this “us” addressed by Fanon. Throughout this chapter, Fanon seems primarily to be writing as a colonized person addressing other colonized people. Notice, for instance, the use of “we” in this passage about the Cold War:
“It is clear therefore that the young nations of the Third World are wrong to grovel at the feet of the capitalist countries. We are powerful in our own right and the justness of our position. It is our duty, however, to tell and explain to the capitalist countries that they are wrong to think the fundamental issue of our time is the war between the socialist regime and them. An end must be put to this cold war that gets us nowhere, the nuclear arms race must be stopped, and the underdeveloped regions must receive generous investments and technical aid. The fate of the world depends on the response given to this question.” (61)
In this passage, Fanon rallies his compatriots and also shows how they have much to teach not only each other but also the world. Decolonization, lead by the colonized for the colonized, will also determine the “fate of the world.”