The Wretched of the Earth

The Wretched of the Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3, “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness”


In this chapter, Fanon continues his roughly historical progression through the anticolonial fight. We have seen that violence erupts in the rural areas, shifting the fight against colonialism away from an urban emphasis on political or labor parties. But now the question becomes how the urban and rural areas can be united into a single “national consciousness.” That is, once the colonists have lost their power, weakened by the insurrection, how does a nation form to replace them and centralize power by and for the newly liberated people?

Fanon begins his discussion with the “national bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie is the class of people in a society that controls the economy and means of production. Under colonialism, there was a “colonial bourgeoisie” full of the elite colonists who controlled the colony. Once colonialism is overthrown, there is a “national bourgeoisie” made up of the formerly colonized elite. That is, the colonized people who had the most power under colonialism take over power from the colonial regime once it is overthrown. But this new ruling class is an “underdeveloped bourgeoisie,” Fanon says. It does not have strong industries or a long enough history to really know how to control the economy. In turn, they cannot truly nationalize the economy. Instead, they primarily serve as intermediaries. They merely ship resources from the country to Europe. In turn, the economy looks pretty much the same as it did under colonialism; the only difference is who benefits from exploiting the masses.

The bourgeoisie in the rural areas are not much better. Farmers in the country will try to take control of the land left by the colonists. They try to get power over the region through land ownership. But they do not change the farming practices on the land or give any power to the peasants. Once again, things remain the same, except the colonists have been replaced by the local elite.

Moreover, the attempts made by the decolonized "national bourgeoisie"—whether to grab industry in the cities or to grab land in the country—fractures the newly liberated nation. People make claims to ownership based on tribe or religion, inciting tribal or religious rivalries and fights. The lack of a strong centralized party leaves everything up for grabs, and ethnic, tribal, and religious differences are enflamed rather than negotiated.

At first, the bourgeoisie may try to quell the resentment growing throughout the nation by turning to a quasi-dictatorial figure: the “popular leader.” This popular leader is usually a military veteran who fought for decolonization. He has the aura of the violence that inspired the people and for this reason gains their respect as a “patriot.” He pacifies resentment by regaling the people with stories of the fight. But this leads the nation in the direction of a dictatorship or authoritarian regime. Like under colonialism, where the masses are “monitored” by the colonial regime, the decolonized masses are now monitored by the party of the “popular leader.” This party starts to act more like a “gang,” according to Fanon, than a political party. Its leader is like a thuggish gang leader who inspires allegiance because of his history of force and violence.

By contrast, Fanon suggests other ways of “politicizing” the masses that are better for the nation. Fanon bemoans the fact that most people think of “politicizing” the masses as “haranguing them with a major political speech,” inspiring emotions within them rather than forming ideas. Fanon calls instead for an education of the masses, which will lead to diversity of opinions that are good for politics. Instead of authoritarian leaders, Fanon says the new nation needs discussion of opinions and rational deliberation: “We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader. We must elevate the people, expand their minds, equip them, differentiate them, and humanize them.”

In doing so, the country will also leave behind the bourgeoisie that had formerly tried to fill in the power vacuum left by the colonists. The country will begin to see that, in fact, the bourgeoisie serves no purpose. They are merely “gang leaders” and “petty traders,” selling the country back to Europe just like the colonists did. Once this class or “caste” has been eliminated, Fanon argues, “swallowed up by its own contradictions, it will be clear to everyone that no progress has been made since independence and that everything has to be started over again from scratch.” People can move toward democracy once they are educated and rationally deliberating, instead of simply seeking power and being swayed by tribal and religious rivalries.


The central theme of this chapter is that decolonization does not end colonization. In other words, achieving independence does not immediately eradicate traces of a colonial mindset or forms of colonial exploitation. Remember that, in Chapter 1, Fanon talked about how colonialism produces not just exploitation but also a specific psychology in the colonized person. Fanon will return to this point in Chapter 5, when he details the psychological problems colonialism produces in colonial subjects. Learning how to break free from this psychology—liberating the mind as well as the body—is an ongoing task.

In this chapter, Fanon is especially attuned to the tragic irony that decolonized people may erect hierarchies reminiscent of colonialism. This happens when the “coastal elite”—where “coastal” refers to cities, as most of the African cities were along the coasts—seek to exploit the rural masses. Fanon has no sympathy for this elite when they are exploitative. He uses biting language that lumps them together, reminiscent of the words he used to describe the colonists themselves. Indeed, he explicitly says they operate like the colonists, simply stepping into the shoes the latter have left behind.

At the same time, this chapter marks a turning point in The Wretched of the Earth, and it is fitting that it comes halfway through the book. Although Fanon begins with critique in this chapter, criticizing the “useless” national bourgeoisie, he concludes with a more positive call to action. His ultimate goal is not criticism—he seems even to suggest the national bourgeoisie are in the end not worth criticizing—but building something better into the future. This is democracy. Fanon wants to think about the best practices for developing a critical citizenry who take seriously and strategize around their collective problems.

We have seen throughout The Wretched of the Earth that Fanon balances history and theory, journalism and philosophy. In moving in this direction of nation-building, Fanon necessarily has to lean more on theory than on history. He can’t tell a story of what has already happened, because he doesn’t have models yet for how a fair and democratic postcolonial nation can be built. That is why, at times, Fanon’s discussion of democracy can seem a bit vague. He calls for “elevation of the people”: the nation should “expand their minds, equip them, differentiate them, and humanize them.” These are grand words, but Fanon does not detail how the people should be equipped, or even by whom. Some might say that Fanon speaks too generally at a moment when he should be providing concrete plans for how to build a better world. It is easy to criticize, but it is harder to find solutions.

A more generous reading of Fanon is also possible, however. If Fanon really believes that people must deliberate and debate the building of the nation, then it would be wrong of him, an individual, to give a recipe for doing so. It would turn him into a kind of “hero” or charismatic individual leader like those he criticizes, instead of a member of a larger population. Perhaps Fanon, in this chapter, only wants to outline the aspirations and goals of a nation and leave for later, in discussion with others, the means for reaching them.