The Wretched of the Earth

The Wretched of the Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2, “Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity”


In the previous chapter, Fanon argued that violence by the colonized against the colonist is the seed of decolonization. It releases a desire for liberation on the part of the people. But at first, this violence is spontaneous and sporadic. There may be an uprising in a village here and a village there, but it is not wholly unified or organized as a movement. In this chapter, then, Fanon turns to how the colonized begin to organizes themselves in the early stages of an anticolonial revolution.

Fanon begins by considering the “colonized intellectuals,” those who were educated in urban areas and therefore influenced by Western ideas they have learned there. Colonized intellectuals have, for instance, learned about political parties in countries like England and France, and their first idea for mobilizing the colonized masses is thus to form a nationalist political party of their own. But this approach is flawed from the beginning, Fanon argues. First of all, modeling an anticolonial movement on colonial politics is a bad start. Why mimic the Western influence you are trying to overthrow? Second, these parties, because founded by intellectuals in urban areas, usually only address the issues faced by a “metropolitan elite” and therefore do not inspire those in rural areas or outside the cities. Unfortunately, it is in these rural areas where the majority of the colonized live.

The failure of the intellectual nationalist parties to address these rural concerns leads to a division. Fanon is careful to argue that this is not a typical division between town and country, urban versus rural. Rather, it is a division between the most privileged within the colonized population and the least privileged. The intellectuals in the cities have sometimes benefited from colonialism, which has brought businesses and other industries from which they profit. But those in rural areas have only been hurt by colonialism. It is this difference in privilege and the effects of colonialism that is the fundamental thing the national political parties overlook. Another thing they are blind to is the fundamental importance of violence in liberating the consciousness of the colonized in rural areas. Violence, which is the main form of colonial control in rural areas, is overlooked by urban intellectuals, for whom it is not a part of daily life.

In addition to the national political parties started by the urban intellectuals, African leaders in the cities may begin to form national labor parties instead. These parties are more directly concerned with the work conditions of the colonized. They are very effective at getting demands met by the colonists because they stage strikes, paralyzing the colonial economy and industry. But, like the intellectual political parties, they remain limited to metropolitan areas, and so, once more, the rural population—the majority of the colonized population—is not addressed or brought into the fold.

But, as we have seen in the previous chapter, it is when the rural villages begin to exercise violence and exert their agency that a true anticolonial subjectivity becomes possible, and the fight for freedom can begin. As this violence spreads through the country and becomes the motor of decolonization, then the urban political and labor parties, which used to be privileged, become isolated. Fanon says that rural leaders, “observing the ardor and enthusiasm of the people as they deal decisive blows to the colonialist machine, become increasingly distrustful of traditional politics. Every victory justifies their hostility towards what they now call hot air, verbiage, bantering, and futile agitation.” A radically revolutionary force is created, and leads the way to fighting colonialism outside of the traditional forms of politics.

As a result, colonialism must also adapt its strategy to keep the colonies contained and in line. It turns to what Fanon calls “psychological warfare,” trying to create divisions within the revolutionary force and turning some fighters against others. One way it may do so is through manipulating local religious and tribal leaders. The revolutionary force, based in villages, largely reveres these leaders, so manipulating them is a targeted way for colonialism to manipulate the masses. Once again, once the colonist no longer is in control of all the force and violence in the country, it turns to more ideological means, trying to control how people think in order to gain their submission that way instead of through force.

Another tactic colonialism enlists is dividing the colonized population. We have seen that colonial violence at first unifies different tribes and religious sects, treating them as a homogenous group of subordinated people. Because colonialism lumped all the colonized people together into one oppressed category based on race and nation, it is initially easy for the colonized to form coalitions that fight back against colonialism as, precisely, one race and nation. But the fact that urban parties have different interests than rural fighters shows that this "race" can now be re-divided in order to cut down these coalitions. Thus, the colonists begin to sow seeds of distrust in the revolutionary force by showing that one tribe may have different interests than others or may benefit from fighting in different ways. In this way, populations within the colonized may begin to turn on each other. The colonist is no longer “public enemy number one.”


In this chapter, Fanon continues a relatively journalistic or historical account of the progress of decolonization. Fanon is describing a general pattern. Although he draws from his experience in Algeria, he also references other places, like Kenya, and throughout the chapter, he seems to suggest there is a general trajectory of decolonization in different contexts. In this way, Fanon suggests some of the “essential” features of decolonization. What always seems to happen is that there is a division of the anticolonial force, divided at first by region and later by colonial manipulation. This happens in Kenya and Algeria alike.

At the same time, Fanon continues to weave theory into his discussion. One of the most widely cited passages of this chapter is Fanon’s treatment of the “lumpenproletariat,” which is a technical Marxist term that Fanon re-defines. The proletariat are the working class in a society and “lumpen” means “rogue” in German; for Marx, then, the “lumpenproletariat” were the rogue working class, in particular, those members of the working class who were too disorganized and uninformed ever to be a part of a class revolution. Fanon completely overhauls this understanding. Fanon argues that being uneducated means in part to be free of colonial ideologies. These rogue members of the colonial proletariat—which Fanon identifies as the rural peasantry—are therefore in a special position to lead the revolution, instead of being excluded from it.

This revision of the Marxist term has great implications for the role of the colonial struggle in a larger global struggle for equality and freedom for all. In the last chapter, we already saw how Fanon gives decolonization a central position in the larger global Cold War. Here, he also positions the revolutionary leaders or “vanguard” of the colonial context, which a global communist movement inspired by Marx would have thought were too backwards to be revolutionary, at the head of the global movement. Margaret Majumdar explains the reversal this way: “In rejecting one of the major assumptions of European socialism, which saw the vanguard of the socialist revolution consisting in the most ‘productive’ elements of the working-class, or the labor aristocracy, Fanon gave a space to those involved in anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles to break free from their status as junior partners in the international communist movement” (101).

At the same time, one should not put too much emphasis on the Marxist components of Fanon’s analysis. Although he borrows some Marxist terminology, Fanon was hardly obsessed with Marxism, and did not set out to write a communist polemic. In fact, people tend to read Fanon through Marxism not because of his own writing but because of the original introduction to the book written by Jean-Paul Sartre, which is discussed in the section on “Fanon and Sartre” in this ClassicNote. As for Fanon himself, Vikki Bell explains that “his explicit treatment of Marxism is limited, … and it is Sartre, the French philosopher with whom Fanon was most closely in dialogue, who insists in his Preface that the revolution will inaugurate a socialist future” (9).

In any case, we should remember that Fanon addressed The Wretched of the Earth primarily to other colonized people, and this explains, too, why he is not interested in following Marxism, a European school of thought, too closely. In addressing the colonized, this chapter is both a history of decolonizing efforts and a warning to ongoing ones. For by explaining how the colonists may divide and conquer a revolutionary force, sowing seeds of distrust, Fanon also warns his readers to be on guard against this kind of “psychological warfare.” It is important to remember the colonist is “public enemy number one” and that the colonized people share a common antagonist despite their regional, religious, or ethnic differences.