The Wretched of the Earth

The Wretched of the Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4, “On National Culture”


This chapter, which was first presented as a paper at the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959, is in some ways a continuation of the previous chapter. That chapter was about how a nation can form politically to replace the colonists after independence. This chapter asks, relatedly: how can a national culture form after independence? Colonialism destroys and perverts culture, for instance teaching the colonized to consider their past as unworthy or evil. What can the colonized do to assert or reclaim or newly produce culture after this kind of brainwashing?

Fanon begins by considering the “colonized intellectual,” someone who has been educated by the colonist but reacts against him. The intellectual’s strategy is to counter the demeaning force of colonized culture by “racializing” culture, for instance advocating for a “Negro literature” or “Negro art” that unites all of Africa. This is what is sometimes called the “Négritude” movement. For Fanon, this is too reactive of an approach. It basically argues with colonists on their own terms. Colonists lump all of Africa into one group, ignoring differences of tribe or ethnicity and the rich cultural histories different places have. Now, intellectuals more or less do the same thing, but instead say all of Africa is the source of good values, rather than bad ones.

But this does not have to be the only stage in the colonized intellectual’s life. In fact, Fanon details three stages in the cultural trajectory of the colonized intellectual. In the first stage, the intellectual mimics the colonist and conforms to colonial tastes. This is a stage of trying to be like the Europeans, extolling European culture. In the second stage, the colonized reacts against this. This is the Négritude phase in which, in reaction to the European casting of African culture as inferior, the intellectual extols each and every thing about African culture as superior. In the third stage, this love for culture finally moves to a fight for liberation. The intellectual begins to write “combat literature, revolutionary literature” that hopes to galvanize the people into fighting the colonist. Here, the hope is that developing a new culture will begin to shape a new nation.

This is an important progression, because it moves the intellectual from a pan-African approach to an approach that is about a nation—rather than an entire race—asserting its nationhood against colonialism. However, there is still room for more progress. Eventually, the intellectual has to realize that culture doesn’t produce nationhood. Rather, a revolutionary fight produces nationhood. All along, the intellectuals’ mistake has been in thinking that culture justifies a nation. In the first phase, the superiority of European culture justifies colonialism; in the third phase, national culture justifies anticolonialism. But only a national fight produces nationhood. Culture follows from nationalism rather than the other way around.

According to Fanon, “the colonized intellectual is responsible not to his national culture, but to the nation as whole, whose culture is, after all, but one aspect.” In other words, the intellectual has first to fight for the liberation of the nation, and then culture will follow because it will have a national context in which to grow. It is the revolutionary action that produces culture, not culture that produces revolution. “National culture is the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong,” writes Fanon. “National culture in the under­developed countries, therefore, must lie at the very heart of the liberation struggle these countries are waging.”

Fanon spends a good deal of space in this chapter focusing on one example, a poem by Guinean intellectual named Keita Fodeba. What Fanon likes about Fodeba’s poem is that it draws upon his nation’s history while also re-contextualizing it within the struggle for liberation. Here, culture is used in order to fight for the future. The poem absorbs the rhythms of combat. In it, culture cannot stand apart from fighting. This is the kind of literature the revolution needs, and it shows the intellectual cannot stand apart from combat, but rather derives his materials from it.

Fanon concludes this chapter by considering recent calls for a culture that is supra-national. Here is how Fanon summarizes these recent calls: “Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims. The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes.” What is wrong about these calls, Fanon says, is they fundamentally mistake what culture is. As Fanon has just argued, culture derives from national consciousness. There therefore cannot be a culture that isn’t national. National culture is the highest form of culture, and any form of international or global culture has to be based on national culture. It cannot surpass it.


This chapter began as a lecture, which suggests its ability to stand on its own. Indeed, this chapter and the next are, compared with the previous chapters, seemingly discrete and isolated. The previous three chapters moved roughly chronologically, from colonialism to postcolonial nation-building, whereas this chapter and the next are more thematic. Within each theme—intellectuals here, psychology in the next chapter—Fanon moves across the colonial timeline in order to pick up trends throughout.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that the “intellectual” has not been a theme throughout The Wretched of the Earth. In Chapter 1, he foreshadows this chapter in this passage: “The colonialist bourgeoisie hammered into the colonized mind the notion of a society of individuals where each is locked in his subjectivity, where wealth lies in thought. But the colonized intellectual who is lucky enough to bunker down with the people during the liberation struggle will soon discover the falsity of this theory” (11). Fanon has already suggested, in other words, how joining the combat can liberate the intellectual, who derives culture from it. This chapter, then, is not so much a standalone piece as a culmination of previous lines of thinking. Different references to the intellectual from earlier in the book are weaved together and brought into deeper analysis here.

Perhaps needless to say, this is also an intensely personal chapter for Fanon, who was himself an intellectual. His training as a psychiatrist is of special importance in the next chapter, on psychological disorders. In this chapter, the intellectual context perhaps most important is the experience Fanon had with Aimé Césaire. Both were from Martinique, the French island in the Carribbean, and Fanon served on Césaire’s parliamentary campaign there before Fanon moved to France. Césaire was a leader of the Négritude movement, which called for a common cultural movement and identity on behalf of Blacks all over the globe, regardless of national context. Fanon was clearly sympathetic to this movement. At the same time, he seems to critique it in this chapter as a “racialization” of culture, rather than a nationalization. Margaret Majumdar remarks that, although “[t]here is a thread linking Fanon to some of the ideas put forward by his fellow Martiniquan, Aimé Césaire, and the other proponents of Negritude,” Fanon nonetheless “synthesizes his views on race, culture and the nation into a radically different perspective, which challenges all attempts to box him into mechanistic categories and all forms of reductionism of his thought to simplistic notions” (97).

The point, though, is that Fanon’s critique is born from a place of experience and respect. His critique of Négritude is different from the one he has of, for instance, the “national bourgeoisie” in the previous chapter. Rather, Fanon can see, from personal experience, a racialization of culture as something he himself was attracted to. He understands its role for the Black intellectual. But he nonetheless argues for moving in a different direction.

In doing so, Fanon also practices a form of self-reflection in this Chapter. It is not an explicit self-reflection; this book has remarkably little autobiography, perhaps because Fanon was interested in a collective movement more than an individual experience. But by talking about the paths an intellectual can take, he is generalizing from his own experience and also criticizing himself in order to move in a more political and national direction. In Chapter 1, Fanon writes:

Self-criticism has been much talked about recently, but few realize that it was first of all an African institution. Whether it be in the djemaas of North Africa or the palavers of West Africa, tradition has it that disputes which break out in a village are worked out in public. By this I mean collective self-criticism with a touch of humor because everyone is relaxed, because in the end we all want the same thing. The intellectual sheds all that calculating, all those strange silences, those ulterior motives, that devious thinking and secrecy as he gradually plunges deeper among the people. In this respect then we can genuinely say that the community has already triumphed and exudes its own light, its own reason. (12)

It is this form of self-criticism, in “public” in the sense that he is writing a book for collective consumption, that Fanon practices here. As always, the final goal is “community,” now understood as national.