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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of The Wretched of the Earth

The French colonization of Algeria began in 1830 and was a protracted and violent affair.  In 1847 the Emir ‘Abd al-Qādir was captured, ending the period of official resistance and allowing Paris to administratively assimilate northern Algeria into French departments.  Insurrections were nearly constant throughout the 19thcentury, however, and roughly one-quarter of Algeria’s Arab population of four million died as a result of the on-going conflict.   A central feature of colonial policy was the appropriation of fertile land in the northern part of the country through sequestration, which forced large portions of the Arab population southward into less desirable territory. 

Battle of Mazagran (1840), by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (Wikimedia Commons)Battle of Mazagran (1840), by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (Wikimedia Commons) Official French policy toward colonized Arabs was brutal.  In 1841 Alexis de Tocqueville recommended fighting them “with the utmost violence.”  He referred to policies of crop destruction, food confiscation and the seizing of unarmed women and children as “unfortunate necessities” to which “anyone who wants to wage war on the Arabs is obliged to submit.” 

Under colonial rule, Algerian natives were French nationals yet were deprived of the rights granted to citizens.  In 1881, a penal code specifically applicable to native subjects was instituted.  The code did away with due process and expanded the scope of criminal activity to include, for example, the failure to report births or deaths, lack of respect for France and French civil servants and failure to produce the internal passports issued to native Algerians.   

In The Wretched of the Earth when Fanon writes, “It is the colonist who fabricated … the colonized subject,” he means it quite literally.    The colonial subject was invented through complex legal constructions that separated nationality from citizenship and –  in 1905 when a sufficient number of white colonists had been born in Algeria – racialized Islam by distinguishing between Christian and Muslim natives. 

In 1944 the “native code” was suspended and reforms instituted some formal equality.  Colonial repression continued, however, and in 1945 an insurrection in Sétif resulted in the death of tens of thousands.  Another insurrection in Madagascar in 1947 (arguably the beginning of Algeria's war of independence) resulted in 90,000 deaths.   In 1954, the FLN began a guerilla war against French colonial domination that would ultimately end in victory in 1962 but at a cost of between 400,000 and 1,000,000 deaths. 

Algeria did not occur in a vacuum.  Wars of liberation erupted in a number of countries following World War II.  One notable example, the success of communist nationalists in Indochina and, later, the Viet-Cong resistance to U.S. forces, inspired many national independence movements and associated militant groups. 

In these circumstances, Fanon's suggestion in The Wretched of the Earth that revolution would produce a wholly different person –  that, indeed, violent insurrection was necessary for the colonized to become fully human – resonated widely.  Che Guevara, who had read Fanon, wrote in 1965 that “to build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build a new man.The Wretched of the Earth was widely read and celebrated outside of Algeria and France.  

In the United States, Fanon's book was a key text in the formulation of the revolutionary philosophy of Black Power.  The possibly apocryphal story of the founding of the Black Panther Party involves Huey Newton and Bobby Seal reading Fanon just months before their arrest for “blocking a sidewalk” in Oakland.  Stokely Carmichael referred to Fanon as his “patron saint.”  Eldridge Cleaver described the book as the "bible of the black revolutionary movement," and claimed that "every brother on a rooftop could quote Fanon."  Similarly, the South African activist Steve Biko circulated a copy of The Wretched of the Earth to members of the South African Students Association from his dorm room in Durban. Fanon's influence was even felt in Northern Ireland, where Bobby Sands – an active member of the Irish Republican Army – read Fanon in Belfast Prison, where multiple copies circulated in the notorious "H-block." 

Meanwhile, back in France, Fanon had a significant influence on Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-wing intellectuals.  Fanon's work, Marxist in many respects, constituted an important and lasting intervention in traditional European socialism, which tended to privilege a European labor aristocracy as the motor of revolutionary change.  Fanon, insisting on the revolutionary role of the so-called underclass lumpenproletariat, gave colonial subjects a primary role in political change.  His work also made it possible for the colonially oppressed to come together through a recognition of racial oppression that, while not a matter of skin color or biology, entailed structures of domination that Marxist class-analysis failed to address. Today, Fanon's central claim about the psychological burden of political oppression continues to influence discussions of "identify politics" among thinkers associated with feminist, queer and intersectional theory.


Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University


Sources Consulted: 

Alessandrini, Anthony. “Frantz Fanon,” Oxford Bibliographies

Majumdar, Margaret A. “The Wretched of the Earth then and now,” International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016

Naylor, Philip. “Algeria,” Oxford Bibliographies

Shatz, Adam. “Where Life is Seized,” London Review of Books, vol. 39, no. 2, January 2017