Social Theory: Frantz Fanon

5th Jul 2022 by Lucia Ardovini

Social Theory: Frantz Fanon

By Lucia Ardovini

Frantz Omar Fanon (1925-1961), was one of the most influential writers in black Atlantic theory, specifically focusing on issues of anti-colonial liberation. Born in the island of Martinique in the West Indies under French colonial rule, he combined his own training in psychiatry and political philosophy to develop a revolutionary criticism of colonialism, race, gender and class. Throughout his work Fanon focused on the fundamental issues of his time – which still ring true today – ranging from language and affect to deep seated structural inequalities related to race, sexuality, religion, social formation and so on. As a Pan-Africanist and a Marxist, he developed a keen critique of colonization along with a roadmap for political, social and cultural decolonization. Described as “the most influential anticolonial thinker of his time” (Jansen and Jurgen, 2017), Fanon would go on to become a globally influential social theorist, whose views remain incredibly relevant to decolonial struggles today.


Intellectual content


In a general understanding, social theories are analytical frameworks used to examine social phenomena. Hence when talking about social theory, we are referencing ideas about ‘how societies change and develop, about methods of explaining social behaviour, about power and social structure, gender and ethnicity, modernity and ‘civilisation’, revolutions and utopias’ (Harrington, 2004). In contemporary social theory, and specifically in the case of Fanon, the focus is on themes such as the nature of social life, the relationship between self and society, the structure of social institutions, the role and possibility of social transformation, as well as issues of gender, race and class (Elliot, 2008). Referenced by literary theorists such as Edward Said in debates on colonial discourse (Prasad, 1992), Fanon produced some of the most revolutionary social theory and striking analyses of the psycho-existential contradictions of living under colonialism. His works – which draw on his own lived experiences of colonial rule in the West Indies and the Algerian revolutionary struggle – bring together key concepts of race, class, gender and colonialism in an intersectional way as a system of oppression.


Fanon’s two seminal works are Black Skin, White Masks (Peaunoire, masques blancs, 1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre, 1961). In Black Skin, White Mask, Fanon lays the foundation for his following works on de and anti-colonial efforts, as he seeks to understand the foundation of anti-black racism in both consciousness and the social world. This is one of the first works that analyses the psychology of colonialism, with Fanon focusing on how the colonizer internalise colonialism and its related ideologies, and the colonized internalise the idea of their inferior status. The main argument here is that, therefore, racism acts as a controlling mechanism to maintain colonial relations as natural and unchangeable occurrences. Hence, starting from anti-black racism, the book develops critical reflections on racism, how it forms, and subsequently deforms both white and black subjectivities that are paramount to understand and challenge multiple levels of colonial subjugations. Overall, Fanon argues that the experience of racialised subjectivity shows that colonialism is a totalitarian project, which does not leave any part of social life or reality untouched. Despite the overly pessimistic tone of the book, Fanon concludes that liberation is linked to revolutionary praxis, which will become central to his later works.


The Wretched of the Earth>span class="s5">, which was informed by Fanon’s experiences in revolutionary Algeria and by his later travels in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 10 years after Black Skin, White Masks Fanon makes the shift from colonialism being a matter of blackness to it encompassing the more general structural oppression of people in the Global South, while also recognising difference within the colonial experience. By providing a psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization upon both individuals and colonised spaces, Fanon develops a broader social, cultural and political blueprint for a social movement aimed at decolonization. Starting from the premises that decolonization is, by definition, a violent process, the book moves through critiques of nationalism and imperialism to develop a revolutionary approach arguing that the development of class consciousness is central to the anti-colonial endeavour. In essence, Fanon clearly argues that the decolonization process does not end with national sovereignty but rather is a continuous struggle to introduce new forms of solidarity – which can only happen through the dismantling of the structural alienation and oppression embedded in the colonial system. Consequently, moving away from anti-Blackness as a core theme of his work and focusing instead on the impact of colonialism on cultural formation and political organization, in Wretched of the Earth Fanon directly engages with the meaning and purpose of revolutionary struggle.


>span class="s5"> This is based on Fanon’s own experience of the Algerian War of Independence, which led him to state that “decolonization is always a violent process” (1961, p. 27). It is important to point out here, however, that with this Fanon does not glorify violence per se, rather, he begins from the argument that ‘violence is the only language spoken by the colonist’ meaning that violence is the only way to respond to an inherently violent system, the way in which non-violence only seeks to empower the elites and the idea of violence as a cleansing force for colonised people (1961 p.66). >span class="s7">ccording to Fanon, the colonial world can be understood as the encounter between two forces, those of the colonial settler and the native population, defined and sustained by violence (1961, p. 28). Hence, non-violent resistance would only result in the preservation of the capitalist, colonial state. Therefore, in Fanon’s understanding violence develops in two directions: internal to the colony and external in the formative conflict between the colonised and the colonisers (Ciccariello-Maher, 2017). In such a context violence is tasked with two indivisible tasks: the elimination of coloniality at the intellectual level (where colonized-colonisers relationships operate along the binary of inferiority and superiority); and the formation of post-colonial cultural, social and political identities. Building on this, in the conclusion Fanon articulates one of his most meaningful contributions to anti-colonial debates, arguing that post-colonial nations cannot merely be the duplication of European states. Understanding Europe to be heavily dependent on structures of exploitation, post-colonial nations need a different set of foundations and new imaginations of collectivity and of the social contract.


In application


Fanon’s work is incredibly influential and was adopted by several anti-colonial and revolutionary movements globally, ranging from the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), The Black Panther Party in the US, and informed anti-imperial struggles in Asia and Africa as well as anti-monarchist revolutionaries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Today, Fanon’s work remains seminal when it comes to the understanding of ongoing debates over the nature of racism, the legacy of colonial domination, and class oppression. This hiswhere Fanon’s work can be used as a lens to analyse ongoing struggles in the MENA region, especially now that discourses over decolonization and critical assessments of the West and its institutions have come back to the fore, with the aim of challenging the legacy of hierarchical and racialised thinking towards minorities and other cultures. Overall, Fanon’s works is more relevant today as we are still grappling with the same questions of how do we overcome racism, what it means to truly change a society, and of whether or not it is enough to overthrow a regime to instil political change.


Fanon’s work was not as well received in the MENA region as it was in other locations, mostly because of its harsh criticism of national bourgeoisie, which at the time has seized power and begun to act as an intermediary class between western powers and local populations. >span class="s4"> is the case of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, where Fanon’s work has been and remains a crucial analytical tool to make sense of the ongoing struggle for liberation. Yet, in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, Fanon can indeed be used as a lens to make sense of the ongoing disorder in the region. Scholars such as Anthony Alessandrini, Nigel Gibson and Jasmine Gani, among others, argue that Fanon’s work sheds critical insights into the role of ruling elites, nationalist forces and deep state institutions in the region, especially when it comes to their resilience against the increasing number of liberation movements. >span class="s4">span class="s4">all of the “wretched” who are denied agency and political space. This is a key part of the liberation process according to Fanon, and applying a Fanonian lens to the current state of politics and society in the MENA, one can see that despite the fact that the anti-colonial struggle is still very much underway, a new page has been turned and we are entering a new historical era (Gibson, 2003). >span class="s4">Fanonian lens, one can argue that the process of decolonisation in the MENA has indeed been re-invigorated, as witnessed by the rise of new forms of Arab, national and transnational consciousness that followed the uprisings and continued instances of popular revolt and resistance. Ultimately, Fanon’s work is crucial to highlight the need to understand today’s political and social turmoil in the region as intrinsically related to the historical legacy and practice of colonialism, which continues to take on new forms.

Essential Reading

Fanon, F. (1986 [1952]) Black Skin, White Mask (London: Pluto Press)

Fanon, F. (1970 [1959]) A Dying Colonialism (London: Penguin) 

Fanon, F. (2001 [1961]) The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin)

Fanon, F. (1964) Toward the African Revolution (New York: Grove Press)


Further Reading

Alessandrini, A. (1999) Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives(London: Routledge)

Abdilahi Bulhan, H. (1985) Frantz Fanon And The Psychology Of Oppression (New York: Plenum Press)

Ciccariello-Maher, G. (2017) Decolonizing Dialectics (New York: Duke University Press).

Elliot, A. (2008) Contemporary Social Theory: an Introduction (London: Routledge)

Gibson, N.C. (2003) Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford: Polity Press)

Harrington, A. (2002) (ed) Modern Social Theory: anIntroduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Jansen, C., Jurgen, O. (2017) Decolonization: a Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press).