Understanding Violence Through the (Misread) Works of Frantz Fanon and Gandhi



References to the work of Frantz Fanon about violence are plethora in this issue, while the example of Gandhi remains a theoretical trope for systematic non-violence advocate. In this conversation, Bhakti Shringarpure provides us with a deeper reading of these two historical figures.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: It seems that you and I like to have ongoing conversations over the years! Your recently published book Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital (2019) argues that the Cold War becomes an extension of European colonialism. You have a chapter in there comparing Fanon and Gandhi’s theories of violence and the impact of their ideas on newly independent nations. In fact, we had spoken about these ideas with regards to Fanon back in 2014 after watching Göran Olsson’s film Concerning Violence. The film juxtaposes the first section of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) entitled “On Violence” read by Lauryn Hill with footage of several situations of revolutionary anti-colonial wars, in particular in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. I think that we both had problems with this film, in particular its very literal understanding of violence, but it also offered an entry to Fanon’s book, that remains the absolute theoretical reference to think of 20th century revolutionary violence. Could you tell us about it? 

BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: Thank you for restarting this conversation which still remains relevant as we work through our troubled, misunderstood and often paradoxical understandings of violence. My engagement with The Wretched of the Earth comes out of my interest in examining postcolonial civil violence; those internecine conflicts that come into the foreground once the independence has been won. The Wretched of the Earth has always provided many answers for this query especially with this exploration of the short moment of decolonization as Fanon calls it. And when you get into The Wretched of the Earth, you have to unfortunately lock heads with the controversy regarding Fanon and his supposed reputation for promoting violence. What made Goran Olsson’s film Concerning Violence interesting was that he situated the brutality of colonial violence as an a priori and Fanon’s theories as an intervention into that. There is a popular notion that Fanon propagated violence as cathartic or as a cleansing force. But in going along with Olsson’s choreographed rendition of the footage of colonial wars and its horrors, you come to see that Fanon’s thinking on the subject is steeped in a very particular historical context. The film allows us to visualize that context and this is one of the film’s merits for me even though I do agree with many of the critiques of the film.

Both Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth are his most well-known works though The Wretched of the Earth has more controversial legacy. It was also, of course, published posthumously and there is a kind of notoriety around it. One reason why this book continues to circulate is also because it has an urgent, feverish quality. Fanon knew it was his final days before the leukemia took him and it communicates his anxiety. It also synthesizes and brings together a lot of his previous work whether in psychiatry or in political speeches or in articles but they are modeled for a rigorous Pan African content. The colonized here become one entity and he works through what an African identity might look like within that.

Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique and he studied to be a psychiatrist but before he entered this profession, that there were some formative moments that shaped him. He idealistically enlisted to fight for France in World War II, and was completely transformed by what he experienced. His eyes were opened by the racism that he experienced there, and he became very conscious of questions of race, of the hypocrisies built into colonial structures, and became quite radicalized. He completed his training as a psychiatrist and his dissertation became what we now know as Black Skin, White Masks. He got a job in Blida, Algeria and at that time he was very much influenced by all kinds of progressive theories of psychiatry which he implemented at the hospital. Of course, this is where he had direct contact with the Algerian struggle for independence that had really started in the countryside. He eventually became more and more deeply enmeshed in the anticolonial struggle and the war, and from then on, the rest is history. He became the main spokesperson for the revolution and the main liaison between the FLN and the French left. His life was often in danger and he was smuggled out from Algeria into Tunisia with a Tunisian passport. His wife, Josie Fanon. was always by his side, as was their son, Olivier. Eventually, he succumbed to leukemia at the very young age of 36 and passed away.

LL: The Wretched of the Earth remains systematically associated to the preface Jean-Paul Sartre wrote for it in which the Paris philosopher perceives anti-colonial violence as a catharsis. It’s written poignantly, but when it comes to colonial and anti-colonial violence, as well as psychiatric processes (such as catharsis), Fanon was much more qualified being a psychiatrist in revolutionary Algeria and a clandestine member of the FLN.

BS: Yes, this is a very complicated question because it raises a whole set of issues about violence itself and the role it plays in our kind of political imaginaries… in fact, the moral rather than political role. We see ourselves as moral when we disavow violence, right? Yet even though most claim to disavow violence, they are always practicing some form of it. But on an ideological, political level, there is a real moral superiority in saying that violence is bad or violence is wrong. Meanwhile, state-sanctioned, legitimized violence is ongoing and constant and, as you know, is destroying our world and corroding humanity as we speak. So I think that Fanon is just one very small piece in a vast puzzle of ideas that frame our dual, hypocritical and dishonest attitude toward violence.

In the case of Fanon, it was indeed Sartre who got very excited about Fanon’s understanding of what anti-colonial violence can do for colonized subject and circulated a preface that managed to compromise a lot of Fanon’s nuance at the end of the day. Honestly, there should not have been such huge problems supporting Sartre’s interpretation either but the French left publishing crowd at that time managed to make a straw man of Fanon in this case. We should also not forget the role that Hannah Arendt played by criticizing and misunderstanding Fanon in her book about violence. So these perceptions kept circulating especially as the 1968 atmosphere and debates got more tangled and heavier. To this day, it is impossible to shake off the idea that Fanon was a promoter of violence and even Adam Shatz’s review of Fanon’s biography in the New York Times ran with the spectacular headline: “The Doctor Prescribed Violence” (2001). This pernicious cycle of mistaken interpretations continues.

Fanon’s actual understanding was much simpler and very logical. When Fanon speaks of violence, it has to be understood through the specificity of the historical moment he lived on and the particular space he occupied, and the kind of interactions he had on a daily basis with the people who were actually fighting the Algerian war for independence. Fanon writes that violence can be cleansing, that it can be a cathartic force. He says things like “the muscles of the colonizer always tense” and that the colonized person always dreams of attacking, occupying. The colonized dreams that the last shall be the first. But he’s not actually calling for violent action because the truth is that there was no need. It was all around him. Fanon, in the end, is accurately diagnosing for us what the colonized man is feeling and experiencing, and what this anticolonial violence releases or sets free within him. So it does shock me that again and again he is turned into a prophet of violence.

Sure, he was not advocating nonviolent methods or anything like that. He had a very realistic perspective on what was going on and I don’t think he had a problem with the use of arms or with violent struggle as a whole. But the violence that he speaks of is not brute force being prescribed for the sake of cleansing or catharsis or the creation of “new man.” It is a revolutionary violence that counters colonial oppression. Violence in Fanon’s case crystallizes as radical resistance, and it also self-defense and in the service of eradicating of colonial rule. This distinction is absolutely vital because this is precisely the sort of epistemic split we see applied to discourses of terrorism today. The world frowns upon certain groups that practice terrorism, but continues to favor the kind of terrorism that is rampantly sanctioned by official means. And it is precisely this ideology that is operative within the Fanon-violence debate. There is a refusal to see anti-colonial violence as a legitimate response to years of colonial suppression and brutality and to cast the violence of the oppressed as illegitimate, gratuitous and unreasonable. The question here is not whether Fanon advocated violence or not but, in fact, the question we should be asking is why was he penalized for this? In fact, why does he continue to be penalized for this? Despite his lucid and urgent thinking on violence, his thoughts are always represented as a sign of moral failure. It just goes to the show extent to there is an ideological allergy to understand violence as self-defense, self-preservation and survival and seeing violence as an important method of resistance.

LL: Although Gandhi was 56 years older than Fanon, these figures are commonly opposed in a narrative that roughly posits one as an admirable advocate of non-violence, while the other had no problem justifying the so-called “terrorist” actions of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). In your book Cold War Assemblages, you look into details about what common perceptions of Gandhi and Fanon are fundamentally missing. Could you tell us about this?

BS: For a while now, I have been trying to examine why the postcolony does not succeed as a nation despite really wanting and believing in the concept of a nation state. Why is it that postcolonial spaces are plagued by internecine violence, infighting and civil wars? Of course, I identify Cold War dynamics as playing a very crucial role on this. I think in attempting to draw those lines, the two people that think the most about violence, it turns out, are Gandhi and Fanon. And these two figures play a very interesting role in that they are theorists but also leaders of anticolonial struggles. And this creates a kind of interesting cocktail of ideas where there is a lot of thinking on their feet and thinking urgently to resolve specific situations that we need to take into consideration.

My chapter was comparative and it came with certain prejudices already. One, the idea that Gandhi is the ultimate saint of non-violence is an idea that has never resonated with me, having grown up in India where you see the fire of communal violence, the extreme Islamophobia, the sway of a violent imaginary and, not to mention, the bloody history of the Partition that we all learn about. So how is it that we perceive the struggle in the Indian subcontinent as nonviolent, despite violence being everywhere? So this was the main question. And only when I read Fanon that it clarified for me all of the places that Gandhi has gone wrong. I think we attribute the Indian freedom or Indian independence to Gandhi’s philosophies of non-violence, but I think what Gandhi was much more skilled in unifying the nation, setting up a unified agenda and a really creative strategy to combat colonial powers. Within that, satyagraha, non-violence, and civil disobedience were all important methods but there were also plenty of violent resistances that went parallel to this.

So I think when you read the two thinkers side by side, 56-year age difference does not matter. Reading Fanon reveals that Gandhi’s theorization of violence is far too moralistic and simplistic. He is completely marinated in discourses of discipline and sees war as an exercise in discipline and fair play. And he is unable to comprehend why the colonized tend to be implicated in the eruptions of violence that are often self-defense or spontaneous forms of resistance. Fanon truly understands why this takes place whereas Gandhi hopes to discipline this impulse.

LL: The Indian anti-colonial struggle is interesting to study to see how the principle of non-violence did not appear to all as the winning strategy. Younger militants such as Bengal’s Subhas Chandra Bose were advocating for total war against the British colonizers, going as far as requesting support from the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis and obtaining from imperial Japan that they send troops to India. Non-violence, on the other hand, is a powerful tool if and when it is understood as a strategy in relation to the opponent. Why do you think it was the adequate strategy in this case, and given how the victory of the Indian anti-colonial struggle was immediately followed by the catastrophe of the Partition, do you think that this strategy played a role in how things unraveled?

BS: I think non-violence can become a potent weapon of the weak and the poor, everybody doesn’t have the means to fund and carry out a violent resistance. Bose certainly tried and is revered a lot within the Indian context. There are also leaders like Bhagat Singh, for example, that end up in the margins of this history as militants who made smaller violent interventions. But I think the civil disobedience that Gandhi championed was a very exciting political weapon and I think he successfully deployed it in various situations. One of the problems here is that just as people have a hard time understanding the role of violence in a struggle, I think there is a real romantic understanding of non-violence in a struggle too. There is a romantic notion that it is simply turning the other cheek while standing there passively but it is a very particular type of activist action and it is amazing to see how well it worked in the context of the Dandi March or what they call the Salt Satyagraha, for example. 

But to survey the world we live, the one where we have inherited from these histories, it does seem that non-violence does not seem quite enough given the extraordinary potency and investment in violent modalities by imperial powers. Non-violence and civil disobedience can have an exciting set of effects and are indeed important within the larger frame of a struggle, as we know with histories of civil rights in the U.S. too. However, for my part, I am more concerned with refusing the totalizing understanding of Indian independence struggle as having been achieved through non-violent methods.

LL: Back to Fanon, and back to our present, there seems to be a growing number of political activist organizations reading his work and claiming it as a theoretical reference. In your opinion, what are the keys for a useful reading of his texts today, rather than a romanticizing one? You see many quotations of Fanon without the context. So how do you think it’s useful today, which way we should be reading? Which way does it become imperative in our struggles?

BS: Yeah. I have also been thinking a lot about whether Fanon has become a sound byte or not. I will admit that I do enjoy romanticized versions of him because I think he’s one of the few thinkers that isn’t romanticized enough; he always elicits debate. So for starters, I would promote a romanticizing view of Fanon, more than the romanticizing of Gandhi, for example.

But aside from that, there are several things one can take away from Fanon’s legacy. One is to do away with the hypocritical and immoral approach towards violence and to actually try to understand the psychology of the victimized and the oppressed in the way that Fanon did. To try to grasp that there’s something natural in the feeling of violent rage when combating, coping, being captive to situations of inhumane injustice. So for one, a generative use of one’s anger is something I could take away from Fanon and to engage with that anger without individual self-contempt but with a political assertiveness. I also liked a concept of “radical empathy” that was put forward by Christopher J. Lee in his book on Fanon. Thinking about  “radical empathy” as a way to connect different struggles and engaged various forms of solidarity can very useful for readers and activists, and would organically deflect from being mired in misreadings and debates about violence too. ■