August 30, 2012
This interview was conducted by Yasser Munif in Boston in July 2012, and first appeared in Jadaliyya.
The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s magnum opus, was published in 1961, a few days after his death. The book was not only influential for several generations of grassroots movements and activists in Africa, the United States, and Latin America; it was also discussed and debated extensively in intellectual circles across the globe. The reception of the book was more mitigated in the Arab world. This might be due to Fanon’s sweeping criticism of national bourgeoisie, which seized power after decolonization and became an intermediary class between Western powers and local populations. The Martiniquan intellectual was skeptical of revolutions from above, as was the case with several anti-colonialist movements in the Arab World. Interestingly, while the Arabic translation of the The Wretched of the Earth came out shortly after its publication in French, it omitted many passages because they were critical of the national bourgeoisie. Fifty years later, Fanon is almost absent in public discourses in the Middle East and is still marginal in the Maghreb. The uprisings should have been an excellent opportunity for Arab intellectuals and activists to engage with Fanon’s work on the revolution and the subaltern in the new conjuncture. However, despite the significance of his political philosophy for the current revolts, his books are either out of print or conspicuously absent from many bookstores in the Arab world.
In this interview with Nigel Gibson, one of the most prominent experts on Fanon’s work, he explains the significance of the Fanonian theoretical framework and its relevance for the Arab uprisings. Dr. Gibson has written a number of articles and books on the Martiniquan intellectual and deployed a Fanonian perspective to examine many contemporary revolts. His numerous books include Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (2003) and Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo (2011). He teaches postcolonial theory at Emerson College. The interview was conducted in Boston in July 2012.
Yasser Munif (YM): Ongoing protests have swept the Arab world since the toppling of the Tunisian dictator. They changed the political and cultural landscape of the region. The mot d’ordre of the protesters is clear: “The people want the fall of the regime.” Western powers tried to co-opt the protests because real democracy in the Arab World can threaten their domination of the region. They want to maintain their hegemony in the oil-rich gulf. The region is also important geopolitically because of the United States’ close ties to Israel and its wars in the Middle East. The interest of the West in the region is not new. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that while formal colonization ended in the mid-twentieth century, Arab countries became the political satellites of the West since then. He writes, “for two generations the United States has sided in the Middle East mostly with tyranny and injustice… one administration after another has propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned away from the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation.” In a way, Said is suggesting that real independence was never achieved; the present politico-economic condition of Arab countries is a continuation of the colonial period by new means. In this context, the work of Frantz Fanon is very relevant to understanding the current Arab uprisings. Yet, as you explain in a recent essay, one should refrain from the temptation of extrapolating old concepts into new situations. Referring to Fanon’s work, you write, “The task for radicals is to avoid applying pre-formed cookie-cutter theory to new situations and jamming a new event or movement into old categories, but, instead, to begin to open up space for dialogue and reflection on action.” Do you think that Frantz Fanon’s analysis about colonialism, imperialism, and independence movements can have any relevance today for Arab protesters who are challenging despotic regimes?
Nigel Gibson (NG): I do think that Fanon has relevance, and so the question is: how do you approach Fanon? Are there categories in Fanon’s thought that can simply be applied to new situations and, if so, what new thinking would emerge? Applying Fanon’s categories to new situations is valuable to a degree, but the question I am asking is: what does Fanon offer us methodologically? In other words, how does he actually get us to rethink our concepts? I think Fanon is basically an open thinker and a radically humanist thinker. If you look at the first pages of Black Skin White Masks, where he is critical of scientific methods, to the final pages of the Wretched of the Earth, where he talks about working out new concepts, the question is how and on what basis do you work on new concepts with the goal of human freedom? For Fanon, becoming actional is connected to his idea of a new humanism, which is explicitly critical of European humanism so intimately connected with colonialism. So, it is not simply about finding new concepts from anywhere, but being both critical and self-critical and also being very open to what is happening on the ground. So, inIn other words, a critic could have said last January in 2011 in Tahrir Square that if you read Fanon, you know that the liberatory moment is going to be closed down by the military or the state, and therefore end up with a kind of ontological pessimism. We are defeated before we begin. The critic might add, Fanon tells us that all these revolutions in the end will fail, and look: they have. But, for me, that is not how one engages Fanon. If Fanon is alive he is in the revolts because the revolts themselves open up something very new. One has to be aware, or listen, or open one’s mind to what are the new beginnings.
Now, you could look at the situation and say, Fanon tells us to be very wary of the nationalist elite and all the other social forces we could talk about: religious elite, nationalist elite, military elite, regional elites, and the comprador nature of some of these elites and all the repressive ideologies that justify them. So, in other words, the question then becomes: how do you employ Fanon productively? You do not want to close down possibilities, but at the same time, you want to be wary of Fanon’s warnings. In a certain sense, it is what I would consider a dialectical approach. It is not simply good enough—and one could do it with any thinker, one could do it with Marx—to have a series of categories to say, well, this revolt will fail because it does not correspond with the categories or fulfill certain expectations in a Marx or in a Fanon, and therefore it is doomed to do this and that. Even if in the end it does this and that, we have to be open about what is new in the Arab revolts. What do they tell us? How do they come about? Why have they come about now? In what way can one see them as new beginnings, a turning of a page, and the creation of a new historical moment, rather than a repetition of a neocolonial situation that you mention in Said’s quote in the beginning? If Fanon’s thought is alive, it cannot be simply applied.
YM: As I mentioned above, Said thinks that the process of decolonization was aborted by local social forces or international policies, and that what we are experiencing in the Middle East today is a continuation of old fashioned colonialism, as in the case of Iraq, or a form of neocolonialism /imperialism, as is the case of most Arab countries. In that sense, Fanon is extremely relevant and we have to reread him. And yet, Fanon has been extremely absent in the Arab public spheres, public discussions, and the media in general. Some intellectuals have either consciously avoided him or are ignorant about his work and its implications on contemporary Arab societies. Others, for ideological reasons, denied these connections between “metropole” and “colony,” to use Fanon’s categories and the relationship between the two. Many Arabs and Western liberals have argued that the revolts are about democracy and anti-authoritarianism and we should not conflate these new categories with the older ones such as imperialism or colonialism. Hazem Saghieh, one of the influential Lebanese journalists who writes for the London-based and Gulf-funded al-Hayat newspaper, wrote in one of his articles that protesters in Tahrir Square were not holding signs about imperialism or Zionism, and these revolts are therefore about internal /local issues and regional concerns. So, how can one make an argument for the relevance of Fanon when he is so absent in public discourses?
NG: It is almost like different levels of abstractions. There is not a one-to-one correspondence; fifty years is the long time to think about a thinker’s relevance or to think of the relevance of their work to a contemporary period. However, in the same way, you could say that there were not very many banners about democracy in the way that liberal democracy or the western kind of democracy understands it and that the pundits have said the revolts were about. Therefore, the signs and slogans in Tahrir may have not been about imperialism, and they may have not reflected the kind of things that the liberal critics wanted to talk about either. But the issue then becomes not to judge things by an a priori anti-imperial discourse. Rather, the first thing is to find out what is being talked about. What are people saying? It was certainly about getting rid of Mubarak. But it was more than that, even if it was not explicit; the point is to trace through the contradictions and developments. Someone who has not read Fanon and who lived through that period, and now reads Fanon, will find out how quickly he or she identifies with his analysis of how the new rulers behave like the old rulers; it is a revolution, yes, but in the old sense of revolving and repeating what was happening before. In one sense, it is how we understand neo-colonialism, but Fanon is not only talking about the threat from imperialism, which is always there, but how the threats are manifested internally. He speaks about a great threat to the decolonial movement being the lack of liberatory ideologies. What does he mean by ideology? Certainly, there are many ideologies around. There are Islamic ideologies; there are nationalist ideologies, neoliberal ideologies, and so forth. He is talking about something else. He has a vision for something else. The subject of the Wretched of the Earth is the wretched of the earth, that majority of the people of the world, who are not only poor, but are actively denied agency and are constantly reminded that politics is above them. How do the wretched of the earth become actional, become political, and become social individuals? Fanon calls his ideology a new humanism, not only in contrast to the elite humanism of the West, but also on the axiom that the wretched of the earth, understood socially, think and thus must be a basis of a new politics. This, of course, is not achieved immediately, but it must become an explicit element of the struggle for liberation. Then there is the question of the role of the intellectual committed to social change. What can the intellectuals do in these periods? So, again we are back to Fanon’s relevance and the difficulty of talking about it in an applied way. First, it is interesting to look at the history of why Fanon is not considered relevant and the fact that postcolonial states have suppressed his thought in one way or another. Second, the only way that we can prove the relevance of Fanon in a certain way outside of some academic circles is to ask, do people involved in social struggles engage with Fanonian concepts and find something relevant for them, even if they have never heard of Fanon because Fanon is implicitly in the struggles? In other words, the idea of a new generation; he has a phrase at the beginning of “On National Consciousness,” where he talks about how “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” So, a new generation makes something of him and brings that into the discussion. To me, that would be the only proof of relevance of Fanon. I can make an argument for it, but in the end that would be the test. Now the question is: how would that happen? How do you get Fanon into the public discourse, especially when a lot of the public discourse is limited, and Fanon is considered irrelevant? You face liberal pundits like Hazem Saghieh, who might say that Fanon represents a fifty-year-old politics of violence and imperialism, or other politicians, who might emphasize that Fanon is not a Muslim and is therefore irrelevant to a Muslim society. These are some of the problems with discussing Fanon.
YM: One of the central themes for Fanon is the question of violence. He writes, “The violence of the colonial regime and counter-violence of the native balance each other and respond to each other in an extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity… The settler’s work is to make even dreams of liberty impossible for the native. The native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler.” Is it realistic to transpose such a framework to today’s Arab context? Or is the present situation in the Arab World less Manichean and more complex?
NG: It is always tempting to say that the situation is less Manichean and more sophisticated than it really is. It always seems to be more sophisticated than the way that Fanon speaks about it. Then, one is shocked by the simplicity of the situation. Certainly, especially in a period of crisis, the rulers understand it simply as one that is determined by force and violence. The contemporary Syrian situation is an obvious example. Of course, there are also sophisticated ideological ploys, but on the ground it becomes a zero sum game of force and eradication. What is essential to the regime and connects it back to colonial ideology is the idea that we are dealing with a bunch of terrorists, fanatics, barbarians, the uncivilized, and the primitive, which are all attempts to legitimize force and violence, and label any kind of counter force as automatically evil. The violence is asymmetrical, that is to say, the regime not only bombs from the air, but also kills indiscriminately, because it sees the people as the enemy, as supporters of the terrorists etc., but it is Manichean in the ways Fanon explains. Counter-violence against the colonial regime is liberatory because it is an act, and by acting, the absolute power of colonialism, internalized by the colonized, is shaken. Thus, for Fanon, it is important psychologically. But Fanon understands the costs of violence and is acutely aware of psychological trauma. Rather than glorifying violence, as some believe, he understands that counter-violence is necessary for survival. The struggle to live another day is also the psychological survival of people, which is at the same time intimately tragic.
How Manichean is the present situation? Surprisingly, Fanon’s categories, despite the fact that his descriptions in The Wretched of the Earth have been criticized as simplistic, seems at certain points in history to be born out over and over again. Yet, the essence of his philosophy is to get beyond Manicheanism and get inside these struggles.
YM: The question of violence is central for Fanon as a political activist and thinker. He engages with it extensively in the Wretched of the Earth and other writings. He obviously has a complex understanding of violence in the colonial context. Unfortunately, the question is often overlooked and oversimplified by political forces and certain intellectuals, and yet in every revolution it reemerges and becomes central. For example, in the context of the Arab uprisings, it was a central issue in Libya and Yemen and still is in Syria. First, I would like to hear your thoughts about how you conceptualize the question of violence in the work of Fanon. Do you think that violence can be decontexualized or dehistoricized as it is sometimes? Who decides whether militarization is the best strategy to topple a despot? Is the violence of the wretched always justifiable?
NG: I do not know whether it can be decontextualized or dehistoricized. To historicize and contextualize it is one way I understand Fanon’s question of violence. I think—I have been thinking about this for a long time because the question will not go away when we think about Fanon—there are three elements to it. To start with, in the 1960s, Fanon was seen as an angry guy, a man of violence. This was the view taken by some Black Panthers and some liberal theorists. In reality he was not. Certainly, he was very intense, but he hated violence. Then, from a psychiatric point of view, it is interesting to read chapter one of the Wretched of the Earth (the chapter on violence, with the final chapter on colonial wars and mental disorders), and see his understanding when he writes about the effects of violence on an individual case level. As a practicing psychiatrist, he treats people who have been involved in setting bombs, and he treats children and others who have been tortured or seen murder and death. It is a human tragedy that scars the survivors. He is essentially talking about what we now call traumatic stress. There is no simple answer. The violence is tragic and that weighs on him, but the answer is not non-violence. In contrast to the bad faith of liberal humanism, Fanon understands that the situation is one of violence. Violence is used to suppress a people in a most blatantly crude way. We can historicize and contextualize it. We can analyze the Algerian situation, its history and so forth, and question whether that is anything like the situation we face today. But, this is only one way to understand why violence becomes so important. The question is how is liberation achieved? Fanon says that violence will be there in some form. He says, even where some nations have gained independence through non-violent means, there is still an atmosphere of violence, even if it is manifested by the changing of street names. Thus, violence has many dimensions to Fanon and is manifested at different levels, and importantly for Fanon, it is internalized by the oppressed. Violence, in other words, is the first means and the last resort to pacify a people, and thus is something we need to continue to consider after the gunfire has ended.
YM: The other related question is… there are two moments in the process of decolonization that are extremely important for Fanon. It is the process of transitioning from national consciousness to a consciousness of liberation. That is coupled with the question of violence and how we deal with it. How do we transcend the violence generated by the struggle for freedom, the violence necessary to topple a regime like the one in Syria? Violence, in reality, is the everyday experience of Syrians; they are dealing with the trauma that the regime’s violence is generating. As Fanon suggests, counter-violence can be extremely traumatic. Human Rights groups have documented cases of deliberate killing and torture on behalf of the rebels in Syria and Libya. In the context of the Arab revolts: 1) Can we speak of the two phases that Fanon talks about? 2) After the toppling of Arab regimes, what kind of new humanism is possible, to use Fanon’s term?
NG: If there are two phases, then we have not seen the second one yet. Then again, it also depends on how one looks at the Arab revolts.
YM: Can you explain the difference between these two phases, and why they are important?
NG: You mention one way, but there is another way of thinking about it. Fanon talks about it in an essay in Towards the African Revolution. He talks about the second phase of liberation. In other words, a kind of first phase where you gain independence, but as you said, in that Saidian mode, it remains a kind of neocolonialism. Or, you have a change in leadership or in the government of the nation; you might even have nationalization of oil, or something like that, but things do not really change for the masses of people. In other words, life for most people continues in the same way, and the people ask, was the struggle for independence worth it? Fanon sees that. Writing from inside the liberation movements of the 1950s, independence is somewhat narrow, and it has a narrow political platform. In a certain way, that is the implicit critique of someone like Nkrumah, who talked about the goal being gaining political power. For Fanon, the goal is social liberation, so there has to be a new phase. The question then becomes, where does this new phase come from? It seems to me that we could say that it is continually stymied, so we seem to have a continuous repetition of reproduction of that first phase. Because political change does not really lead to any fundamental change for most of the people, indeed because politics (even if it calls itself democratic) is elitist and barred to most people, so it is necessary to look to new movements outside of “politics.” So, the question then becomes, what is actually going on outside of high politics at the level of the communities, the workplaces, and so on? What are the actual spaces and possibilities for social change in the nation? Because these movements are often not articulated in a political way, the answer is not immediately apparent. The problem in Syria, I think, is that when there is so much violence, there is not only very little chance to create spaces for liberation, but also all talk is quickly swallowed up by it. People are trying to keep their heads down because they are being bombarded all the time. Spaces of liberation are, in a certain way, some kind of social spaces where people can not only get together and think about something else, but also act together. If you are thinking about an elemental solidarity, you are thinking about people acting together and taking decisions together, and thereby beginning to think about what sort of society they want to create. So, there is a need for liberated spaces; that is really difficult. It has been historically difficult, but all liberation and liberation theorists try to engage with that kind of discussion in one way or another. Fanon talks about it, for example. I do not want to think about it as high philosophy; I want to think about it practically. For example, he talks about lentil production. He says, in the “Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that during the liberation struggle, farmers producing lentils began to understand the whole process of unequal exchange and began to “ask theoretical questions,” such as the accumulation of capital; they began to organize production for people’s needs. It is about the creation of social solidarity through the practical experience of understanding that your life is not just about survival, and that work is intentional and social, and thus, opposed to forced labor. There is another example in the chapter “On Colonial Violence and Mental Disorder,” where he talks about colonialism as a living death, where everyone is desperately trying to survive. The situation for many people is so dire that there is no solidarity at all; in fact, the neighbor is seen as a threat to your own survival. But the liberation movement, and I am thinking of it also as an idea, opens up spaces even under the harshest conditions, and new solidarities can emerge. People begin to think about creating a different life, and a different society. It is happening today. Whether or not that is framed by the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the discourse of some other organization, the moment has been opened up by the freedom struggle, and the question is how do you allow that to develop without being simply closed down by new political elite, who are simply wanting to use the people to establish a new patronage? That seems to be part of the problem of where the Arab revolt is and it is not unique to the Arab world. It is a global problem. If you look at social movements in Latin America, there are spaces where alternative politics are thought about on the ground, at the grassroots level, but they are always under threat. As you mentioned in the beginning, the problem in North Africa and the Middle East is the politics of oil. It means that the spaces for truly grassroots politics, involving those masses of people excluded from high politics, are very quickly closed down. They are not really allowed any kind of autonomy to develop, and that seems to be the real problem, which gets us back to the neo-colonial relationship.
YM: We already see symptoms of that happening. The United States and Europe want to abort these ongoing revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and other places. They are doing it through different means. There are obviously the International Monetary Fund packages and the very tempting loans they are offering. There is also what the West calls the democratization process. The United States and Europe send experts, NGOs, and funding to allegedly help post-revolutionary Arab governments transition into democracy. In reality, what they aim to do is shut down any real alternatives by imposing a shallow liberal democracy backed by military institutions…
NG: Many of the democratization projects are a real threat to real democracy. That is what they have done since the 1970s, dealing with what could be considered democratic movements from below being suffocated by the elite’s democratic projects; that has been successful…
YM: There is so much funding and NGOization of the process; the aim of Western experts who help with and monitor the elections is to prevent alternatives, and this was clearly demonstrated in the Libyan and Egyptian elections …
Now, I would like to ask you about the idea of spontaneity that Fanon theorizes at length in his work. You wrote in an article about the revolts within the Arab revolts, “There is an arc of spontaneous revolts, beautiful in their creative beginnings, which traverses boundaries and borders and creates new solidarities and imaginations but which under the whip of the forces of order and strategies to buy-off sectors of the revolt becomes fragmented.” Elsewhere you write, “The fragile new communities become destructured and can very often be destroyed by intrigue and rumor encouraged by agent provocateurs.” And you add, echoing Fanon’s “The Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity,” that “the grand schemes of liberation, however indistinct and amorphous, can quickly be compromised, consumed by petty disputes and local hatreds.” While Arab protesters are constantly organizing and planning, spontaneity has played an important role in many of the protests. You mention above that there is a need to transcend spontaneity in order to challenge the regime’s hegemonic project. Do you think that too much spontaneity could be detrimental? I am thinking more specifically about the Syrian case. Sometimes there is lack of leadership, and due to the repression of the regime, the Syrian uprising seems much more spontaneous and decentralized than the Egyptian revolt. Some commentators have suggested that heterogeneity and decentralization are actually benefiting the Syrian uprising.
NG: It is a difficult question. First, what is interesting about the revolts is that they show that there is never anything purely spontaneous, and there is always some thinking and discussion, and thus some kind of organization involved in it. I think that what is interesting about Fanon’s critique of spontaneity is that it is not simply an organization question. The position of the old left is to posit spontaneity as the opposite of organization. In other words, spontaneity needs organization. The problem for Rosa Luxemburg in the Mass Strike is that she could not break with the vanguard party concept. Fanon is saying something different. Although he is saying that you need organization, he also makes the point that organization cannot simply be parachuted in from outside and be applied to these spontaneous movements. There has to be some kind of “organic” organization that grows out of them, and by that he includes the organization of thinking and reflecting on the rationality of revolt. Grassroots organizations do not need NGOs or professionals to tell them what to do or what to think. That is to say, the real pitfall of spontaneity is the limitation on thought, which is for him Manichean, and is often reproduced by NGO intellectuals. Ideas are suppressed for the sake of action, but then the problem or the weakness of spontaneity is not simply that it exhorts itself in action, but that a change in tactics by the oppressor can be totally disorienting. In certain ways, as I mentioned, intrigue, agent provocateurs, dirty tricks—all the kind of things that governments do to break movements—do in fact break them, because a spontaneous movement, as far as it is reactive, has not really worked out what it is for outside of what is against. That is, in a certain sense, Fanon’s critique of spontaneity. Now, it does not mean that all spontaneous movements are necessarily lacking in that way. What needs to happen is not simply that local spontaneous demonstrations or activity need to be organized; this can be done quite simply. We have the technology. What everyone recognized, almost immediately, about the Tahrir Square moment was the way that social media was a great organizing force. The revolt became understood globally, almost immediately, as more than a local event. Of course, there was pre-history to the revolt, but the larger question is, what are the principles that will unite these disparate movements? To work this out you need to encourage spaces of open and democratic discussion, and, of course, this was also what Tahrir was about, and that was more important than the social media stuff. Indeed, one could say that the seemingly endless debates were even more important than getting rid of Mubarak, because the joy of that event did not last. As soon as Mubarak left, the military was able to demobilize Tahrir slowly.
So, what should organizations active in the struggle and committed to social liberation do? In a completely different time, in 1956, just as the battle of Algiers was beginning, a conference took place in the Soummam Valley. Under the guise of the French military, the FLN was able to meet and to work out a whole bunch of principles about how to operate nationally; how to ensure that the military was subservient to the political wing of the movement; how they would ensure a collective leadership and collective decision-making. Fundamental questions, but not simply formulaic, the subservience of the military to political decision making must mean now, even more than then, a real democratic, and not elite politics. In addition, the conference discussed for what they were fighting. For national liberation, but they also articulated certain general principles framing the struggle as non-sectarian, secular, democratic, socialist, and so forth. And even though they were under the whip of the French military, and in an area under French control, they were able to meet clandestinely for a week. That conference had a tremendous effect on Fanon, and you can see some of the principles articulated in A Dying Colonialism and also in the Wretched of the Earth. So, it is not impossible, especially with new technologies, to be able to develop and agree on some overarching principles. The greatness of Soummam was not only the platform, but that they met at all, and did under those circumstances. When I speak of principles, I do not mean a proclamation. It is not a question of intellectuals proclaiming this or that, but rather what emerges from grassroots discussions and meetings—living principles, if you will. Thus, organization has to come from an agreement about principles, rather than just the need to coordinate: so as much as we must all act today in a concerted manner, that should not be the ground of an organization. Indeed, often such agreements about tactics close down the needed spaces for political and philosophical discussion.
YM: The situation in Syria is complex and unique. The regime portrays itself as anti-imperial, anti-Zionist, and pro-Palestinian; it has allies such as Iran, China, and Russia to support its repressive actions. More disheartening however, progressive leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro have demonstrated their support for the Syrian regime. Likewise, some of the left in the United States and Europe have denounced the Syrian opposition as simply the agents of the West and the theocratic regimes of the Gulf. At the same time, the United States and Israel have real interests in that region, and their policies are obviously not driven by a desire to “democratize” Syria or other countries in the region. Some of the Syrian opposition argues rightly that while the Syrian regime was, in fact, at times isolated geopolitically for its support of Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran, it has also worked very closely with the United States and the West throughout its history. The rhetoric about anti-imperialism is a form of pragmatic posturing, rather than a real ethico-political position. At the same time, it is true that some of the opposition receives funding and political support from the Gulf and the West. How do you see the position of the left within such a conjuncture? What would be a decolonial position or epistemology in this difficult and complex context? What would be the priority from a decolonial perspective? Is it more important to topple the regime and then tackle questions of imperialism and the West? Or is it crucial to oppose both at once? What can we learn from Fanon?
NG: There are two ways of thinking about it. First, it is pretty Manichean, is it not, to think about these big political terms, anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, and then to accuse those who do not agree with you of being Zionist or imperialist. Manicheanism is like a vacuum, it is an either or situation that curtails or destroys the development of liberatory thought. Fanon certainly understood that kind of politics. It is reminiscent of the cold war politics from within he was writing. The colonial power tended to be France or Britain, and the Soviets were proclaimed as anti-imperialists. So, if you align yourself with the Soviets, it fits nicely with that kind of rhetorical division, but in reality it does not get you anywhere.
YM: But when the FLN was pressured to align itself with the Soviet Union and include something to that regard in its program, Fanon was opposed to it, and argued that this question should be postponed. He said that the FLN should not be pressured to take a position before it achieves its own independence. I believe he wrote about it in Dying Colonialism.
NG: He saw the cold war as a whirlwind, sucking the independence movements into this kind of either or situation. Though this seems an historical point, it is analogous to today. Certainly, Fanon was not pro-Soviet. He supported the rebellion in Hungary in 1956. He certainly was not pro-Communist Party, because the French Communist Party was very weak on Algerian liberation and the Algerian Communist Party simply followed the French. For him, it was about Algerian liberation. That was the measure. Then there are the tendencies within the Algerian Liberation, and that is another messy question. To get to the question of Syria and whether one can entertain a united front, which in part is backed by the Saudis and the West against the regime (which is in part backed by the Iranians and the Russians) is very difficult. In a certain sense, one can go back to Lumumba in the Congo, seeing how he tried to navigate post-independence by playing the Americans off the Soviets. The internal intrigue became too much. He was simply liquidated, and Mobutu (with US support) ruled despotically for 30 years. Fanon does not give you a blueprint on what you should do, but I think you almost have to go with it on your own and be very wary of being tied to any external power. In the context of the Algerian revolution, Fanon met a number of West African revolutionaries. One by one, these leaders were eliminated. Not only Lumumba in the Congo, but also Felix Moumié in the Cameroon. In other words, the colonial regime makes sure, often with the help of surrogates, that radical leaders and those honest principled intellectuals and activists who refuse to compromise their principles of independence are eliminated, so that the postcolonial regime (and especially its resources) remains accessible. The result has been a disaster for the (post)colonial world. In other words, Fanon is very wary of neocolonialism emerging under the guise of independence, often cloaked by a rhetorical anti-colonialism. That is the great threat that he maps out in the Wretched of the Earth, and it is something we have been living with for fifty years. The threat takes new forms, we have seen comprador kinds of bourgeoisies, often backed by the military, governing over a rentier state, as well as a fractured state of local militarized elites backed by one or another regional powers; both examples are also threats for Arab liberation. In that particular case, I think what Fanon maps out in the Wretched of the Earth, in the “Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” could be very useful in thinking about this present moment—in thinking about all the tendencies and possible scenarios. It is a hornet’s nest, or, as Lenin said about the League of Nations and could be said about the United Nations, it is a thieves’ kitchen. Everyone wants to get in there, all the imperial thieves, the regional thieves, and the local ones as well.
YM: And yet if we think about Libya, when Gaddafi was about to seize Benghazi and in the Syrian case, when the regime is massacring people in an extremely violent way on a daily basis, practically speaking, is it possible to open several fronts and confront the despotic regime and the imperial power all at once? Is it possible to make certain temporary concessions until the regime is toppled? Is it fair to ask people who are bombed, massacred, and killed to think about the comprador and the bourgeoisie and the outcomes of their revolts in the future? What these populations are doing is simply trying to escape death and survive.
NG: You are absolutely right, the perspective has to be from the ground up situation. You have to defend yourself, but there is never an ideal situation; it is always a kind of state of emergency, which is why Fanon begins the Wretched of the Earth with “On Violence.” The colonial relation is one of violence. The internalization of violence and anxieties of violence is what concerns Fanon, since movements emerge in the context of brutality and the brutality of thought.
YM: This is obviously a dividing question for the Syrian opposition. The opposition is divided along these questions. Part of it, mostly the left and the nationalists, does not want intervention and, generally speaking, opposes militarization but at the same time is willing to negotiate with the regime and possibly form a unity government. It lost part of its credibility because of that. On the other hand, the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to part of the left, are welcoming the support of the West whether it is financial or political. At the same time, many of the Syrian people do not recognize themselves in either one. It is a conundrum.
NG: It is; the thing is that neither one side nor the other is right in this equation. You can see the pitfalls of either side. A negotiation with the government will not lead to anything. The state will outmaneuver them. The Syrian people do not recognize themselves in the elite politics of the Muslim Brotherhood or the left, each of which is looking for an external power rather than the people’s own self-activity. It gets us back to that question on spontaneity and organization. What kind of organization—understood as a living organism, a living body, and not an authoritative party or elite group—is going to emerge? It is really an open question. There is no answer. There is not an answer because there is not a clear alternative being developed. But, it does not mean that we have to dismiss the concrete situation. People are facing state brutality and military power. Fanon has something to say about this—not as a philosopher of violence, as some think, but as a critic of the militarization of these revolts. The military defeat of an oppressive regime is important, but it does not answer our problems. It is where our problems begin, since social change cannot be reduced to a military solution. We get back to the issue of the needed second stage of liberation, and it goes back to Fanon’s warning—his great fear that the great threat to Africa’s liberation was the absence of liberatory ideology. The gunmen fill that space. For Fanon, political discussion necessitates the inclusion of the people, and Fanon speaks about the important relationship that must be built up between the armed struggle and the people. Too often, and often in the name of security, the local people who cannot leave an area that has been militarized are not included. They simply become victims. The situation is Manichean. There is a clear enemy, so the gunmen must be supported unquestionably and without thinking. It is a politics of substitutionism, because all we need to do is support the armed struggle. But, this is exactly at the moment when there has to be critical and inclusive discussion about what kind of polity you want to develop. If you wait until after (after the military victory, after the election, after the UN judgment, etc.) to discuss and act on that, you will find it is too late. The moment—indeed the historical moment—is lost, and a new ruling elite pact, brokered by regional and global power, uses all its power to pacify the people and ensure demobilization, all in the name of the nation, ethnicity, religion, or even the struggle, to obscure its real interest.