Frantz Fanon is mandatory reading on campuses across America. (Photo: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

Frantz Fanon, Oracle of Decolonization

The writer who coined the term “decolonization” thought he was talking to “the wretched of the earth.” Instead, his work was read by elites—to disastrous effect.

Eight days after the worst massacre against Jews since the Holocaust, Russell Rickford gave a speech to a pro-Palestinian protest, in which he acknowledged that he was a person who abhorred violence and the targeting of civilians. And yet, he said the Hamas atrocities meant that Palestinians “were able to breathe for the first time in years. It was exhilarating. It was energizing. And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human.” He added, “I was exhilarated.”

Rickford (who later recanted part of his remarks) is not a fringe activist wearing a sandwich board and sputtering about the Rothschilds and the Bilderbergs. He is an associate professor of history at Cornell University with a PhD from Columbia. His book We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination won the Hooks Institute National Book Award, named for the famed civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Hooks. Russell Rickford is a member in good standing of the American republic of letters. 

He is not alone. Zareena Grewal, an associate professor of American studies at Yale, took to X (formerly Twitter), to give her thoughts on the Hamas massacre: “Israeli [sic] is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity #FreePalestine.” And in response to a post decrying Hamas’s targeting of civilians, she wrote: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” The professor, who teaches migration studies, and whose work has been supported by Fulbright and the Luce Foundation, apparently does not know that the Jews attacked in their homes in southern Israel live in the pre-1967 borders of the state. They were not settlers.

That these ideas are expressed by teachers at our most elite universities is not new. In 2006, radical feminist scholar Judith Butler told an audience at Berkeley, where she teaches, that Hamas and Hezbollah were part of the “global left” and a “progressive” coalition. But in an October essay in the London Review of Books about the Hamas attack, Butler scolded Harvard student groups saying Israel was solely to blame for Hamas’s actions. She writes, “That is no way to recognize the autonomy of Palestinian action.” 

Butler’s piece provoked a furious response from her previous allies. She was accused of treachery against the left in general and the liberation movement for Palestinians. All because she clearly condemned a mass murder spree without qualification. Butler has evolved, but her disciples still believe Hamas’s actions were liberating. 

It’s a pattern. Most universities today have purged from their Middle East studies departments anyone who believes the Jewish people have a right to a safe haven in Israel. On campus, the near consensus among faculty is that the world’s only Jewish state is illegitimate and is responsible for the horrors inflicted on it by its enemies. 

How did this happen? On the surface it makes no sense. Hamas is an organization dedicated to the Muslim conquest of Israel. It punishes gays and lesbians with jail and torture. Its religious police have shut down barbershops and salons that cater to both sexes. Women must wear religiously approved garb. Its very charter openly endorses the killing of Jews. 

Hamas is not part of a progressive coalition, as Judith Butler once said. It’s the Palestinian version of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis. Hamas are not humanists. They are fascists. So why is it that so many of our allegedly most learned citizens found themselves rationalizing, defending, and in some cases even celebrating the barbarism of October 7? 

The answer is found in a mangled paraphrase from Professor Rickford’s speech about Palestinians being unable to breathe. One hears this formulation from the pro-Hamas left all the time. The CUNY Jewish Law Students Association, in an October 10 open letter proclaiming solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, stated: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” 

That line is a paraphrase of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952. A descendant of slaves, Fanon was a psychiatrist, a social critic, and a revolutionary in his short life. The original sentence reads: “It’s not because the Indo-Chinese discovered a culture of their own that they revolted. Quite simply this was because it became impossible to breathe, in more than one sense of the word.” 

Fanon’s most celebrated work, The Wretched of the Earth, was published in 1961, the year of his death at age 36. Its first chapter, “On Violence,” provides both the language and the original arguments many intellectuals employ today to explain their solidarity with fanatic butchers. 

It has become a part of the canon for undergraduates studying everything from the Middle East to comparative literature. One finds him in the syllabi for most of the “studies”: race, ethnicity, migration, colonialism, diaspora. He is mandatory reading for many of the required courses university students must now take to graduate. For the pro-Hamas left, Fanon is not so much an intellectual as an oracle. 

And one can see why. For example, Fanon coined the term decolonization, which you can find all over the social media accounts of professors and student activists. That word used to refer to the independence movements of the twentieth century. Today it has become an all-purpose signifier for the right of the so-called powerless to take down the so-called powerful. Fanon’s influence doesn’t stop there. He is also the first writer to use the phrase lived experience, which is today so ubiquitous in academia. 

The problem is that most of the students and professors who so revere Fanon barely scratch the surface of his work and focus almost exclusively on the first chapter of his final book. This does a disservice to the man and his writings. 

Born in Martinique in 1925, Fanon was an impatient and brilliant polymath. He left Martinique as a young man and studied psychiatry in France. After taking a job at a hospital in Algeria, Fanon became so disgusted with the racism he encountered that he joined Algeria’s National Liberation Front, or FLN, as it waged a bloody struggle for independence. 

The key event was on November 1, 1954. This is when the FLN conducted a series of bombings in Algiers, kicking off the revolution that would end in Algerian independence eight years later. Fanon at the time was practicing psychiatry at a hospital in the city of Blida. In that capacity, he saw firsthand the effects of France’s response to the November 1 bombings. 

“An increasing number of his patients were victims of the carnage unleashed by the French military crackdown,” Peter Hudis writes in his biography Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades. “Many of his patients were civilians who had been brutally tortured by the French and were suffering severe psychic disorders as a result. Others had seen family members ‘disappear’ or murdered and were suffering from severe depression or suicidal tendencies.” 

When Fanon arrived in the country in 1953, he experienced firsthand a kind of racism that he did not know in France or his native Martinique. The hospital where he worked segregated European and Algerian patients, for example. But treating the victims of the French empire, as it were, radicalized him further. He joined the FLN in 1954 and allowed the rebels to use his hospital to hide and treat its fighters. 

This is the backdrop to his last book, The Wretched of the Earth. He wrote it in Tunisia as he was dying from leukemia in 1960 and 1961. In the introduction to the 60th anniversary edition, Harvard professor Homi Bhabha writes that when Fanon’s wife Josie shared some of the rapturous reviews of the first edition, Fanon responded, “That won’t give me back my bone marrow.” As the cancer ate away, he eventually traveled to America for treatment, which he called the country of “lynchers.” On his way there, he stopped in Rome for a last meeting with his close friend, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. According to Bhabha, Fanon was too weak to even speak. 

Fanon’s deterioration may explain why his final work takes a turn away from his earlier writings. In Black Skin, White Masks for example, Fanon concludes that white and black people should strive to free themselves from “the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born.” These are the words of a humanist, someone who rejects barbarism on principle. The tone changes considerably in The Wretched of the Earth, and in particular its first chapter “On Violence.” 

“In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives,” Fanon wrote. “For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.”

These protagonists, in Fanon’s worldview, are the colonized and the colonists. Colonized people, Fanon correctly observed, are subjected to violence to keep them in line with the exploitation of their native land. They are tortured. They are beaten. They are jailed. As Fanon writes of the colonized: “As soon as they are born it is obvious to them that their cramped world, riddled with taboos, can only be challenged by out and out violence.” 

Fanon wrote this book for the peasants, the class of people that he believed were the true representatives of the native lands conquered by European powers. From the time he arrived in Algeria in 1953, Fanon took treks into the countryside to meet with poor farmers. He was fascinated by them. He wrote about how they viewed insanity, for example, as a person possessed by demons. 

An irony is that even though Fanon wrote his book for the wretched of the earth, it was far more influential with the planet’s elites, and in particular European and then American intellectuals. 

And here one sees the influence of Fanon’s most important patron at the end of his life, Jean-Paul Sartre. At the time of publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre was one of the most powerful cultural figures in Europe. He would win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964 only to decline it because he refused to be considered an “institution.” 

Sartre’s introduction to the first edition of The Wretched of the Earth is the seed of the moral illiteracy that leads so many intellectuals in 2023 to cheer or rationalize the October 7 Hamas atrocities. In this sense, Sartre uses Fanon in his introductory essay as a weapon to shame his fellow French citizens. The context here is important. In 1961 Algeria was still a French colony. Algeria would not win its independence until 1962. 

Sartre skewers his liberal neighbors who abhor both the violence of the FLN and the French army. “Our victims know us by their wounds and shackles: that is what makes their testimony irrefutable,” he writes. He then goes on to tap into the guilt many French citizens felt about Algeria on the eve of its independence. 

But, you will say once again, ‘we live in the metropolis, and we disapprove of extremes.’ It’s true, you are not colonists, but you are not much better. They were your pioneers, you sent them overseas, they made you rich. You warned them: if they shed too much blood you would pretend to disown them; the same way a State—no matter which one—maintains a mob of agitators, provocateurs, and spies abroad whom it disowns once they are caught. You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name. 

This is important because Sartre, who at times professed to be a humanist, is making the same mistake so many twentieth-century intellectuals made by negating the individual and speaking only of abstract groups. One has no right to take moral comfort in dissenting from his state’s violence if he still benefits from it. 

And one can see a similar dynamic today. Here's a quote from Nathan Tankus, a think-tanker who is writing a book on the Federal Reserve and is very active on X. He tweeted a day after the Hamas pogrom: “I don’t want anyone to die but I also won’t participate in contextless haranguing of military strategy launched from a Ghetto. Whether it’s Jewish partisans during WWII or, yes, even Hamas.” 

Let me translate. Tankus demonstrates the mindset that has resulted from years steeped in a simplistic notion of “decolonization.” Jews fighting for their lives during the Holocaust were allowed to use violence. But now that Israel exists, it deserves to be attacked. The powerful are guilty because they have power. In this sense, he elides any moral question about a deliberate massacre of Jews on October 7 by clinically referring to the pogrom as a “military strategy.” Fanon would be proud. 

Fanon goes further in his analysis. He not only believes that violence is inevitable in a liberation struggle; he also writes that the act of killing purifies the killer in a war against a colonial oppressor. Fanon writes in the “On Violence” chapter: “At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.” 

In the rest of the book, however, Fanon does complicate his analysis. For example, he warns that liberation movements can become new oppressors once they attain power, thus exchanging one barbarism for another. 

In 1961, it was easy to see how Fanon’s analysis would appeal to the left. But 62 years after its publication, there is ample reason to question his conclusions. Just look at what became of Algeria itself. Like the French before independence, the regime established intelligence services, a brutal military, and its leaders eventually became a new exploitive class. 

During Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, for example, the regime infiltrated the GIA, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that had been waging an insurgency. In the 2000s, a series of former officers wrote books that laid bare how many of the atrocities attributed to the resistance were provocations either known ahead of time or actively planned by the domestic security services. 

None of this is to say that the French should reclaim Algeria as a colonial possession. Rather it is to say that the fetishization of violence as an overdue debt or as a process for emancipating the minds of the oppressed leads to more repression once independence is achieved. When the leader of a liberation movement can summon spectacular violence, it’s a great temptation to consolidate personal power. This is why so many third-world countries that gained independence through violent struggle suffer under autocracy today. 

All this Fanonism, so popular in academia today, is being used to justify exterminationist rhetoric against the only Jewish state and against Jews anywhere. But Israel is not a colonial power. It is a safe haven. There is no mother country for Jews outside of Israel. The war in 1948 that broke out after Israel was recognized as an independent state was not a battle between colonizer and colonist. It was a struggle between a people who had survived a genocide and the entire Arab world. 

In 1948, the goal for the Arab armies was to drive the Jews into the sea, same as it is today for Hamas, and same as it is for the intellectuals so exhilarated by the bloodlust of these fanatics. Celebrating the October 7 pogrom is not solidarity with the wretched of the earth. It is a demented excuse for the mass murder of Jews.  

Eli Lake is a Free Press columnist. Read his last article, “Qatar’s War for Young American Minds.”

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