Critical Thinking Exercise: Sartre and Fanon

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By: Dr. Gary Potter

Fanon, F. 1961. Conclusion. The Wretched of the Earth

Sartre, J. P. 1961 Preface. The Wretched of the Earth

Franz Fanon (1925-1962) was a well-known psychiatrist and philosopher. He received his medical and psychiatric education at the University of Lyon and was the head of the psychiatry department at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in French-occupied Algeria. In 1954 he joined the Algerian liberation movement and edited the revolutionary newspaper El Moudjahid. In 1961 Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, was published. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the French novelist, playwright and existentialist philosopher, wrote the preface to the book.  Fanon argued that colonized people could only be freed from their degradation by purging all aspects of European culture from their societies. He advocated a “collective catharsis” driven by violence directed at European colonizers and their collaborators. Fanon argued that a nation had to achieve its own cultural, social and political maturity before achieving national liberation. He pointed to the history of the United States as an example of a failed revolution because the colonies had retained the cultural and political traditions of the British. The Wretched of the Earth captures the far-reaching ravages of colonization, from the economic, to the political, to the cultural, to the psychological and describes the rage of Third World people’s against their brutalization by European and American imperialists.

Fanon’s “Conclusion” to The Wretched of the Earth is an appeal for transformation among former colonial subjects. He advocates the rejection of European culture and politics which he argues that brought humanity to “atomic and spiritual disintegration.” Fanon looks to the victims of imperialism and colonization to restructure human relationships: “It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man.” He rejects European militarism and conquest saying “humanity is waiting for something from us other than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature.” Fanon presents us with a moral imperative to invent and carry out a new direction for humanity.

Sartre’s preface to the Wretched of the Earth constitutes an endorsement of Fanon’s point of view by the most important and influential philosopher of the 20th Century. Sartre’s endorsement of Fanon’s call for a violent purge of European culture from Africa was echoed by Simone de Beauvoir, without question the most important feminist philosopher of the 20th century, and Albert Camus, the great French author, playwright and philosopher. Sartre’s willingness to publicly associate himself with Fanon’s revolutionary ideology was certainly not a surprise. Sartre had publicly supported the Algerian revolution and was blamed by the French military for their defeat. The French commander in Algeria said he could have dealt with guerrillas and terrorists, but not even the French army could defeat Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s disdain for convention was illustrated by his refusal in 1964 to accept the Nobel Prize for literature.

Sartre fought in the French Army in World War II and was held for several years by the Nazis as a prisoner of war. Upon his return to France he was an active leader of the French resistance.  Sartre’s philosophy stresses individual freedom, human dignity and social responsibility. Freedom, Sartre argued, is a tool for human struggle and social responsibility. People have an ethical responsibility to fight against oppression and injustice. A failure to do so strips an individual of his or her humanity and freedom and makes them nothing more than another oppressor.

The importance of Sartre and Fanon’s collaboration lies in their recognition of the enormous violence and pain inflicted by the economically and politically powerful on the less privileged and, in particular, the colonized. Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir argued powerfully in their writings that people have a responsibility to shed their own comfort and safety and act in the interests of humanity. Of course, the classic statement by all three authors was that French citizens who chose to hide in their homes and protect their families rather than engage in violent acts of resistance toward the Nazis, were, in fact, nothing more than Nazis themselves.

Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, even though it is 50 years old, has a strong resonance in an era of globalization, and should cause the privileged of the United States and Western Europe to take careful inventory of their own humanity and morality.

Ignorance is one of the “costs” and a predictable consequence of “American privilege.” Considering the question of how much we know or do not know also leads us to reflect back on the issue of the power of the corporate media to control a great deal of what we are exposed to, that is, of “what” we see and do not see, of “how” we see it, and consequently, of what we “know.”

 Discussion Questions for Frantz Fanon, “Conclusion” to The Wretched of the Earth:

  • How does Fanon reverse the roles of “colonizer” and “colonized”?
  • Fanon sees Western ideology and military power as hypocritical. Why?
  • According to Fanon, what is the role of mimesis (“imitation,” “copy”) and “narcissism” in constructing the “colonizer” and colonialism?
  • Why does Fanon compare the United States to a “monstrous offspring” of Europe’s paternity?

Discussion Question for Jean Paul Sartre, “Preface” to The Wretched of the Earth:

  • To whom does Sartre address the Preface? Why? To whom does Fanon, according to Sartre, address the book?
  • Why does Sartre refer to the colonized as the “half-native”? How does Sartre view the cultural “split” in discussing the colonized? How does Sartre see the victims of colonization as bicultural hybrids?
  • Why does Sartre see violence as essential to decolonization? What is the role of violence in rebellion against colonial powers and in the reformation of colonial subjects? In what ways does Sartre see the violence of the colonizers and the colonized as being different?
  • According to Sartre, what enables “Humanist” ideology? What is the relationship between Humanism and wealth?

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