The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The Ideas of Frantz Fanon


Liam O Ruairc • August 5, 2003

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was a Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary who became involved in the Algerian national liberation struggle during the 1950s. He wrote a number of books (1), one of which became extremely influential: The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The writings of Frantz Fanon influenced the thinking of Irish Republicans from the 1970s onwards (2). That is why it is interesting to examine his ideas.

Fanon’s first book, “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) was a devastating critique of the psychopathological effects of colonialism. Colonialism has imposed “an existential deviation” (PN, 16) on the colonised as colonialism creates an inferiority complex in Blacks and other colonised races.

The analysis that I am undertaking is psychological In spite of this, it is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process: primarily economic, secondarily, the internalisation -or better, the epidermalisation-of this inferiority. (PN, p.28)

He showed how the oppressed tended to interiorise the racist and colonial stereotypes. This is the “black skin, white mask” syndrome. This inferiority complex in blacks results in a desire to "whiten the race" or "lactification" (PN, 47). If being black or colonised has connotations of inferiority, blacks and other colonised people will denigrate their own race and will want to become “more white than white”. One can witness a similar process amongst many middle class Catholics in the North or with "West Brits" in the south, as they try to be "more British than the British" and denigrate their own Irishness. That is the “existential deviation” imposed by the legacy of British rule. Fanon would probably have called Dublin 4 historical revisionism historical lactification. In 1953, Fanon started to work in the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria. He saw the limits of colonial psychiatry. In 1954, for an Algerian population of ten million, there were only eight psychiatrist and 2500 beds! Fanon's hospital was designed for 971 patients, but there were over 2000. But more than that, it was the colonial context itself which made therapy problematical. In his letter of resignation he wrote:

If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, I owe it to myself to affirm that the colonised, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.

To heal from colonial neurosis, decolonisation is necessary. Frantz Fanon is one of the precursors of ethnopsychiatry, and his analysis of psychiatry and therapy under colonialism is highly original. However, some of his conclusions are quite dubious - like denying the importance of the Oedipus complex for Blacks and colonised people.

In “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961), Fanon’s most important work, he continued to develop important insights into the psychology of oppression of colonial people, as well as a theory of liberation through violence, and how the revolutionary third world could create a new human being. Fanon analysed the central place of violence within colonial society -economic, political, military, cultural and psychic. Colonial reality is “Manichean” (DT, 33). Its central division is that between coloniser and colonised, and it is based on force. “The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations.” (DT, 31) Any observer can attest the truth of this sentence from Belfast to Bogota. If colonialism is of a violent nature, Fanon concludes that only a counter violence can eradicate it: “For the colonised, life can arise only from the decomposing cadaver of the coloniser.” (DT, 69)

Fanon is the apostle of violent decolonisation. Violence is the "absolute praxis" (DT, 63). “The colonised man finds his freedom in and through violence. This rule of conduct enlightens the agent because it indicates to him the means and the end.” (DT, 64) But Fanon’s specific contribution, his originality, lay in emphasising the essentially pathological nature of the colonial situation, on how neurosis and mental pathologies developed as a result of the colonial situation. Therefore, he stressed that violence had not simply a political or strategic function, it has an individual and existential therapeutic value, as it liberates colonised and oppressed people from colonial neurosis and inferiority complexes. “At the level of individuals, violence is a disintoxifying force. It frees the colonised from his inferiority complex and from his desperate and contemplative attitude. It makes him fearless and restores his self respect.” (DT, 70)

Fanon may appear “blood thirsty” to many, but there is probably a lot of rhetoric in his writing. And from reading the chapter on "Colonial War and Mental Disorders", Fanon was clearly aware of the pathological effects of violence. He provided there ample cases illustrating such syndromes as homicidal impulses in a survivor of mass murder, the onset of impotence in a liberation fighter whose wife was raped by soldiers, the continual terror of a former police inspector involved in torture, the suicidal obsessions of an FLN member who becomes guilt-ridden for placing a bomb in a public place killing ten civilians. Perhaps, Jean-Paul Sartre’s foreword to Fanon’s book is far more extreme:

The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through the force of arms (…) The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and an oppressed at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his foot” (DT, 20)

By curing the oppressed from colonial neurosis, violence and the liberation struggle were supposed “to set afoot a new man” (DT, 242). What led Fanon to believe this were a number of phenomenon he had observed during the Algerian struggle. Fanon had seen how armed struggle had changed the place and role of women and youth in Algerian society through their involvement in struggle, or how for example, petty criminals transformed themselves into freedom fighters. The film “The Battle of Algiers” (3) represented very well this process in cinematographic terms. The liberation struggle indeed tended to temporarily and conjuncturally change the role of women, young people etc in society, but the social nature of the FLN struggle resulted in those changes not lasting. For example, women’s place within independent Algeria has not been the most progressive. The ongoing political violence in Algeria can testify to the ultimate failure of the FLN project. Fanon’s mystique of violence overestimated its progressive impact.

Postcolonial Algeria has in fact a lot in common with the image given by Fanon of parasitic native ruling classes and neo colonialism in his chapter on the “pitfalls of national consciousness”. This chapter has proved far more accurate than his optimistic voluntarism about the possibility of the third world creating a new humanism given the degeneration of African and other postcolonial states into the corrupt neo-colonial instruments of the IMF and the World Bank. “The Wretched of the Earth” is a document of its times, of the hopes decolonisation had raised. Its value is perhaps more moral than political. Its analysis of the social forces and strategies involved in the liberation struggle - the poor peasantry in particular - is now recognised as being basically flawed (though Fanon was right to be highly critical of the national bourgeoisie). But Fanon’s book is certain to remain a classic of revolutionary and anti-imperialist literature. Unfortunately the majority of recent interest in his work comes from so-called “postcolonial studies”, who are trying to bury what was revolutionary in Fanon’s thought into the academic quagmire. It is time for the oppressed to re-appropriate Fanon.


(1) Books referred to: Les Damnes de la Terre (Paris: Francois Maspero, 1961) = DT, Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (Paris: Le Seuil, 1952) = PN

(2) For example: Freeman “Read Memmi, Read Fanon” (An Phoblacht 13 February 1976, p.6), R.G. McAuley “Fanon on Algeria: Lessons for Irish Republicans Today” (An Phoblacht-Republican News 13 September 1980, p.10), John Squire “Frantz Fanon” (An Phoblacht-Republican News 27 October 1988, pp.8-9). Fanon was widely studied in jail by Republicans. Bobby Sands was acquainted with his writings. Two recent books have noted the importance of Fanon for Irish Republicans. Brian Feeney Sinn Fein (Dublin: O Brien Press, 2002) pp.363-367 quotes Tom Hartley and Danny Morrison on the matter. See also Richard English Armed Struggle (London: McMillan, 2003) pp.234-235 for a similar view.

(3) "The Battle of Algiers" (1965), film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. For an alternative view, see the future theorist of postmodernism Jean-Francois Lyotard La Guerre des Algeriens (Paris: Galilee, 1989) one of the most lucid and penetrating contemporary commentators of the Algerian war.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

5 August 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Spooks, Spies and Spoofers
Anthony McIntyre


Doing Something Right
Aine Fox


The Ideas of Frantz Fanon

Liam O Ruairc


Terrorism and Civil Society as Instruments of US Policy in Cuba
Philip Agee


The Letters Page has been updated.


29 July 2003


Our Places in the Great Wall
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Mr Michael McKevitt's Statement at the Special Criminal Court
Michael McKevitt


Crisis of Political Imagination

Liam O Ruairc


Childhood, - West Belfast, Race and 'Irishness'
Davy Carlin


Island Palestine
Anthony McIntyre


A Short History of the Global Economy Since 1880
M. Shahid Alam


Belfast's Big-headed Bully-boy
Margaret Quinn




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices