A Revolutionary Lifeline: Teaching Fanon in a Postcolonial World

16th Aug, 2017

Frantz Fanon painting


Sara Salem recently joined the Historical Materialism editorial board and is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick in the UK. Sara’s research looks at questions of political economy, feminist and gender studies, postcolonialism, history, and Marxism in the particular context of the Middle East. She has recently published journal articles in the European Journal of Women’s Studies, Hypatia, the Review of African Political Economy, and Middle East Topics and Arguments


Frantz Fanon remains one of the most important writers on postcolonial issues in the world today. Although he died quite young, his many books and essays are a reminder of his immense intelligence, passion, and foresight. He was born in Martinique in 1925, and after studying in France and receiving a doctorate in psychiatry, moved to Algeria. These three geographical locations were to have an immense effect on the way he understood the world and the power structures that define it. His experiences with racism in France in particular left a strong mark, and it was then that he began to develop the ideas that would define Black Skin, White Masks. It was in Algeria, however, that Fanon both developed his most famous text on postcolonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, and where he became involved in the national fight for liberation from French colonialism.

In his excellent biography of Fanon, David Macey wrote:

Fanon was angry. His readers should still be angry too. Angry that the wretched of the earth are still with us. Anger does not in itself produce political programs for change, but it is perhaps the most basic political emotion. Without it, there is no hope (Macey 2000, 503).

In this piece, I want to first discuss the politics around teaching Fanon in today’s postcolonial world, and in particular in a post-Brexit Britain. What is it about Fanon that captures the hearts and minds of so many students, particularly students of colour? I then want to discuss the continuing debate around Fanon’s relationship to Marxism, looking at some of the ways in which Fanon’s work provides a refreshing lens on capitalism in the postcolonial world. 

Teaching Fanon

I started university teaching in the UK just a few months after the outcome of the Brexit vote, which meant that it was something students wanted to discuss often and that was connected to multiple topics in multiple classes. There is little doubt that Brexit brought to the surface many tensions that have undercut discussions around race, class, gender and nation. For many it came as a rude awakening; for others, it was far from surprising. Discussing Brexit in class, over coffee, and in reading groups, it became clear that many students were searching for ways of understanding what was happening. It turns out that, more than anyone else, Frantz Fanon seemed to provide the type of analysis they needed to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how often Fanon comes up in the classroom. Given how little exposure most British students have to Fanon in general, I wasn’t expecting him to be a recurring presence in classes. Aside from my own inclination to use Fanon extensively, I found many students to be excited discussing his work and inspired by the new horizons it opened up. In particular, his work on double consciousness, liberation and racism in Western societies make him especially relatable to students of colour living in the current post-Brexit moment.

Fanon’s thinking is wide-ranging and touches on many topics, but there is a thread that ties it all together, and that is a focus on the colonial and postcolonial condition. This is precisely where I have found it most useful to teach Fanon: at the intersections of colonial rule, decolonisation, and postcolonial futures. In particular, I have found Fanon’s approach to Marxism an excellent lens through which to teach on the economic and political problems facing newly-independent nations. In a sense, he has been an excellent corrective to Marxist work that can often be Eurocentric and that often does not appeal to students whose everyday lives are very much racialized and tied to the global colour line. Class as an all-encompassing category simply does not grasp the reality of their worlds. Yet at the same time, given the power of the contemporary neoliberal phase of late capitalism, they can very much feel the effects of neoliberal restructuring in the UK. Class matters—but so does race, gender, sexuality, and a host of other categories.

One of the more memorable discussions I had was during a reading group meeting[1] where we discussed the antagonisms between the British ‘white working class’ and the rest of the working class who were Black, Asian and Eastern European. Precisely where one would expect to find solidarity, we instead find the same level of racism and sexism as in the rest of society. Numerous pieces have touched on the problems with romanticising the white working class and excusing their racism by arguing that they have been the most affected by neoliberal policies in the US, UK and Europe.[2]

However, in our discussion we approached the question from a Fanonian perspective, which allowed for a more nuanced understanding of how Eurocentrism has positioned white workers in an antagonistic relationship vis-à-vis non-white workers, and that this was a conscious historical development that ultimately benefitted capital. Understanding it, however, through an economistic class lens would not have revealed the racialisation involved in this divide and rule tactic that ultimately led to the Brexit vote turning out the way it did. Pushing this further, we also discussed how Fanon’s move to see Eurocentrism globally means locating Western workers at the international level, and how workers in Western nations were able to gain significantly in the 1950s and 1960s precisely because workers in the Third World were instead more intensely exploited.

Perhaps what seemed to draw so many students to Fanon was his insistence on always centring power. Power is everywhere; it is not an accident nor a coincidence. Some nations are powerful, others aren’t; some men are powerful, others are not. This happens historically and is far from natural. It is around this subject that the most interesting discussions happen. Discussions about how we got to where we are today—and how others were unable to get here. About what we mean by progress, and why we need to progress at all. About who we blame and who we hold accountable—and who slips out of the picture as a consequence. This focus on power was also extremely multifocal: power was exercised through politics and economics; but also through culture and values as well as through the psyche.

This also spoke to many students, who are trapped today between discussions around identity politics that can sometimes see identity simplistically and not pay enough attention to the structural on the one hand, and debates around structures such as capitalism that do not pay attention to identities such as race, gender and sexuality on the other. Fanon in many ways transcended this so-called divide, and I often wonder if this was because of his training as a psychoanalyst whose work has always traced the effects of colonialism on the psyche of oppressor and oppressed. This is what many students in post-Brexit Britain are dealing with today: double consciousness, daily racial and sexual forms of repression and oppression, and a worsening economic context that sets impossible standards. How this impacts the psyche of people of colour growing up today is an under-studied aspect of the racial impact of Brexit and Britain’s colonial history in general.

This focus on race, consciousness, colonialism, and power is precisely what makes his work on postcolonialism especially attractive to students living in a postcolonial world that seems to be in a constant state of crisis. Fanon’s position on power and the postcolony is neatly encapsulated in a question that he once asked: do African leaders have the right to govern their countries badly? For many students this was a strange question: it was a given that some countries are governed badly and others are governed well and it just so happened that the division between the two was a racial one. This is an assumption that has come out quite clearly in my teaching on both international development as well as Middle East politics: that there continues to be a global divide between countries that know how to run themselves and countries that seem to be in a total shambles, constantly in a state of war or poverty.

It is no surprise to find these assumptions everywhere: we see it day in and day out in the media, and it is often reproduced by both well-meaning, well-intentioned people. But Fanon pushes us to focus less on these differences and more on what caused them. Why is there poverty in some places and not others? Why are regions conflict-prone? Why do some people live well while others don’t? These are, incidentally, some of the same questions Marxists have asked for well over a century.

Fanon’s question about whether African leaders have the right to govern themselves is the question at the heart of postcolonial studies; at the heart of any class on the postcolonial world: who has the power to define, to act, and to simply be. It is by asking Fanon’s question today that we can return to Stuart Hall’s question why now? Because we see a continuity, and that is precisely why Fanon still matters. African leaders did not have that right when Fanon asked the question; they do not have that right today. The ‘post’ in postcolonial has not meant independence in the fullest sense of the word.

Marxists have rightly pointed to capitalism as an answer to the questions of global inequality. Fanon has, in turn, rightly noted that capitalism is never just about economics: it is a fully racialized project and that is why the line between those who have and those who do not have is often a racial line—for Fanon it is race, not class, which divides the zone of being and the zone of non-being. You can be poor and white and remain in the zone of being, where you have the automatic right to life; you can be rich and black and be in the zone of non-being—at the top of it, but in the zone nonetheless. This provocative challenge to economistic Marxism is what I move to next.

"We revolt simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe." Fanon Banner outside the Minneapolis Police Department following shooting of Jamar Clark on November 2015. Photo: Tony Webster
 Fanon Banner outside the Minneapolis Police Department fourth precinct following the officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark on November 15, 2015.
Photo: Tony Webster tony@tonywebster.com

Why Fanon, why now?

In 1996 Stuart Hall wrote a famous piece entitled Why Fanon, why now. In this piece he speaks of the impossibility of finding a “real essence” underlying Fanon’s work, claiming that it is impossible to find out what Fanon really meant or how he wanted his work to be used. Instead, we should see every engagement with Fanon’s work as a re-reading. Re-readings can tell us just as much about the person doing the reading as about Fanon; they can also tell us a lot about the political moment in which the reading takes place. What is it about our current political moment that has led to a revival in Fanon’s work? On the one hand, the rise of the far-right, Brexit, and the ever-increasing racialisation of people of colour reveal the need for analysis that centres questions of race, racism, white supremacy, and what Du Bois called ‘the global colour line’ and what Fanon referred to as what separates the zone of being from the zone of non-being. On the other hand, increased economic crisis, growing inequality, and the increasing exploitation of countries in the formerly colonised world raise questions about what it means to be postcolonial. There is little doubt that Fanon remains relevant. The question is: which Fanon?

There have been many productive, revolutionary and original readings of Fanon’s work. Fanon’s ideas on race, Eurocentrism, revolution, capitalism, colonialism, and psychiatry have inspired generations of scholars and activists. So in one way, Why Fanon, why now can be answered relatively simply: Fanon still speaks to us today because the world is still characterised by many of the structures and problems that existed in the 20th century, even in altered forms. Nevertheless, there have also been readings of Fanon that have tried to either simplify him or strip him of his radical understanding of global politics. In terms of simplification, there has been work that has misunderstood or misrepresented his ideas on violence and its role in decolonisation, and work that has written him off because of his feminist credentials[3], or lack thereof. Instead, I want to focus on work that has instead de-radicalised Fanon, and then discuss his position vis-à-vis Marxism and its relevance to postcolonial studies.

The triumph of neoliberalism and the effect this has on academia is an important part of the story when it comes to some of the de-radicalisation that has happened vis-à-vis Fanon’s work. The rise of theoretical approaches that overemphasize the subjective at the expense of the material have led to an appropriation of Fanon that detaches him from his radical roots. One example is the ways in which Fanon’s work has been appropriated by some within postcolonial studies, in which we see the rise of a new reading of Fanon: a ‘postcolonial’ Fanon; “…not only post-colonial, but also post-nationalist, post-liberationist, post-Marxist, and post-modern,” according to Neil Lazarus. In other words, the opposite of the revolutionary Fanon that preceded this shift. This does not apply to all postcolonial scholars; indeed Edward Said or Stuart Hall cannot be said to have detached Fanon from his radical roots. However there have been scholars who have interpreted his work as being primarily about cultural liberation, thereby ignoring large parts of his body of work.

This is especially clear in discussions on nationalism. Fanon was greatly influenced by the Algerian war for liberation. This meant that nationalist anti-colonialism, violence, class, ideology, and the ‘Third World’ in general were major themes in most of his work. This goes against the general tendency, however, to see nationalism as a deeply destructive force by many European thinkers—as Europe has had a particularly disastrous relationship with nationalism—but also by many scholars who work on the Third World today, who also see nationalism as essentially destructive and regressive.

Fanon’s view, however, was much more complex. His critique of bourgeois nationalist ideology is itself delivered from an "alternative nationalist standpoint,” as Lazarus notes. In other words, although many within postcolonial studies view nationalism as a thoroughly modern and negative force, Fanon instead saw it as a means to liberation while simultaneously warning us of the pitfalls of bourgeois nationalism. The national project could also become a socialist one, rather than a capitalist one. There was potential there, in other words. Nationalism was not essentially good or bad; progressive or regressive; history and social forces—including both the bourgeoisie and subaltern classes—are what determine which form nationalism takes.

This emphasis on capitalism and imperialism further distinguishes Fanon from some readings of his work who ignore Fanon’s materialism. However it is not only scholars who ignore his materialism that are problematic; a critique must also be levelled against strands of Marxism that continue to ignore his call to stretch Marxism when it comes to the postcolony. This call remains one of his most important contributions, and builds on Black Marxist[4] as well as Third World Marxist work that stressed the singularity of the colony vis-à-vis capitalist development. Fanon rightly found that for Marxism to be useful to those living in the colonial and postcolonial world, it would have to be “stretched”:

Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem. Everything up to and including the very nature of pre-capitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again (1963, 40).

In The Wretched of the Earth, he writes:

In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to deal with the colonial problem (1963, 30).

Although Marx’s later writings addressed colonialism and in particular slavery in the United States, some of his work remains trapped within a Eurocentric framework that does not pay enough attention to how capitalism developed both in the postcolonial world and at the global level. Later Marxists were to expand on his, notably Black Marxists as well as Western Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, as well as non-Western Marxists all over the globe, from the Indian Subaltern School to the Latin American dependency school.

Fanon’s analysis goes even deeper, however, because of his focus on both the material and the subjective—culture, identity and the psychology of colonialism are as important as economic and political structures—and in fact cannot be easily separated from them. Liberation therefore is never simply about a proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie; it is much more than this. Moreover, for Fanon, the revolutionary potential that could overthrow capitalism was located in the colonies—not the metropole. Returning to Fanon’s point about race being the dividing line between the zone of being and the zone of non-being, it becomes clear that race is very much tied to capitalist development.

What I find especially important is that Fanon’s anti-colonialist nationalism allowed for a bridge to an internationalism that was anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist in nature. Fanon was, above all, a theorist produced by and through European colonial rule in Martinique, France, and Algeria. For Fanon, Eurocentrism was a global structure, conditioning everything and everyone. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that he is experiencing a revival today. The resurgence of racism, right-wing nationalism and fascism in many places have served to bring many of us face to face with a reality that has been true for over 400 years: global inequality continues to be reproduced through structures of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. To fight this, we need to turn towards the very theorists who understood the root causes, and who thereby can lead us to structural solutions.

I want to finish with a quote from Neil Lazarus on the importance of anti-colonialism:

It is important to try and keep alive the memory of the ‘revolutionary heroism’ that was everywhere in evidence in the struggle for national liberation. Even more important is to insist that the concrete achievements of this struggle are still intact and continue to provide a vital resource for present-day social and cultural practice. It is not only that the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world were changed decisively by the experience of anti-colonial struggle. It is also that these changes are irreversible (1999, 120-121).

Fanon was, above all, a postcolonial thinker. He not only predicted many of the problems that would emerge after independence; he understood why they would happen and that they were a result of structural preconditions that were put in place through colonial rule. Marxism was an important part of this story—but it had to be stretched first. In particular, the intersections between Marxism and Eurocentrism were key.

For Fanon, Eurocentrism was the defining structure at the global level, and only by breaking out of that could anything drastically change. It is this concept that speaks to students today, after Brexit and after Trump. The ways in which Eurocentrism and capitalism co-constitute each other and constantly create one another is a subject on which a lot of interesting research and teaching has yet to be done. Indeed it is precisely his insistence on understanding Eurocentrism globally that allows us to do something that I believe makes Fanon especially interesting to teach in our current political moment: it allows us to understand Britain itself as a postcolonial nation. It is only once we start to see the centres of empire as part and parcel of the emergent postcolonial world that we can properly understand events like Brexit, and properly understand the current development of late capitalism.

For Fanon capitalism did not develop in the centres of empire alone; but nor did it simply get exported to the colonies as it existed in the metropole. Insisting on seeing Britain as itself constituted by and through postcolonialism was a lifeline for many students—particularly students of colour—who simply had never learned of Britain’s colonial history nor its troubled history with race and racism. It was an acknowledgement of their own histories, and their family histories. It was an instinctive understanding that power exists, that it is unequal, and that while hierarchies may seem natural, they rarely are. Fanon is a lifeline because he reminds us that everything is postcolonial, and that once we look at the world through a postcolonial lens, everything changes.


Césaire, A., 2000. Discourse on colonialism. New York: New York University Press.

Davis, A.Y., 2011. Women, race, & class. Vintage.

Du Bois, W.E.B., 1935. Black reconstruction in America: An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanon, F.,1963. The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press.

Hall, S., 1996. The after-life of Frantz Fanon: Why Fanon? Why now? Why black skin, white masks? The fact of blackness: Frantz Fanon and visual representation, pp.12-37.

Lazarus, N., 1999. Nationalism and cultural practice in the postcolonial world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macey, D., 2012. Frantz Fanon: a biography. London: Verso Books.

McClintock, A., 2013. Imperial leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. London: Routledge.

Robinson, C.J., 1983. Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. “Anti-black femininity and mixed-race identity: Engaging Fanon to reread Capécia.” Fanon: A critical reader (1996): 155-162.

Stoler, A.L., 1995. Race and the education of desire: Foucault's history of sexuality and the colonial order of things. Duke University Press.

[1] A special thanks to Mina Manik, Kulani McCartan-Demie, Stephanie Ifayemi and Lisa Tilley for this inspiring discussion.

[2] See: Lisa Tilley, The Making of the ‘White Working Class’: Where fascist resurgence meets leftist white anxiety - http://wildcatdispatches.org/2016/11/28/lisa-tilley-the-making-of-the-white-working-class-where-fascist-resurgence-meets-leftist-white-anxiety/; David Roediger, Who’s Afraid of the White Working Class? - https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whos-afraid-of-the-white-working-cl…!

[3] For a detailed analysis of this see: Sharpley-Whiting 1996.

[4] Du Bois 1935, Davis 2011, Césaire 2000, Robinson 1983.