Frantz Fanon at a press conference during a writers’ conference in Tunis in 1959

Since Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, many people have been trying to understand why horrific levels of violence are built into the imperialist system. Revolutionary Frantz Fanon remains an essential voice for those looking for answers.

Most will be attracted to Fanon because he was very clear on the difference between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.

His 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, sets out a way of understanding colonial oppression that has appealed to successive generations. “Colonialism is not a thinking machine,” he wrote. “It is violence in its natural state and will only yield when confronted with greater violence.”

Fanon’s words were a rallying call for oppressed people everywhere to fight back by any means necessary. Among those to take inspiration were revolutionaries fighting dictatorships in Latin America. And he was read by the Black Panther Party that patrolled the racist police on the streets of California.

Today, some will go beyond the question of violence to learn how Fanon revealed the intertwined nature of racism, colonialism and capitalism.

Born in the French colony of Martinique in 1925, Fanon volunteered on the side of the Free French army during the Second World War. He fought to liberate France from the Nazis. It was his experiences of French racism during the war that turned him into a radical.

Fanon saw how black people in North Africa were treated while he was stationed in Algeria prior to the invasion of southern France—it shattered his illusions in empire. After the war he returned to France and trained as a psychiatrist.

He tried to enter the text for his first book—Black Skins, White Masks—as his doctoral dissertation, but the board rejected it. In the book, which was published later, Fanon tried to take apart the concept of “blackness”.

He explained that colonialism imposed a “black” identity upon those it racially oppressed. But it also covered up the existence of these categories. “When people like me, they like me ‘in spite of my colour’,” he wrote. “When they dislike me, they point out that it isn’t because of my colour. “Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle.”

And Fanon was sceptical of attempts to turn this negative concept of blackness on its head. Some thinkers insisted there was something progressive, passed down through biological or cultural means, that united all black people, irrespective of background.

He dismissed such talk as essentialist and deterministic. In his book, he quoted a famous phrase from Senegalese poet and future president Leopold Senghor, saying that “emotion is as Negro as reason is Greek”.

And Fanon said that “Whiteness” was an arbitrary distinction, too. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation,” he wrote.

Finding it difficult to get the work he wanted, Fanon eventually took up a post in a mental hospital in Algeria in 1953. In its capital, Algiers, he observed the routine violence meted out by French colonials.

Algeria had been a territory of metropolitan France since 1848, but the Arab-Berber population, or Indigenes, were never given full citizenship. Instead, the colonialists drove their country backwards, smashing the existing state and its schools, and its agricultural systems.

In the process they killed millions of people through a combination of war, ethnic cleansing and starvation. In 1954 an Algerian national liberation struggle began with the National Liberation Front (FLN) at its head.

The FLN conducted an armed struggle against the European occupiers, one brilliantly depicted in the 1966 film Battle of Algiers. While in France, Fanon had been on the periphery of the Communist Party.

It paid lip service to the ideas of anti-colonialism imparted to it by Lenin and the Russian Revolution. But it opposed demands for Algerian independence, insisting that colonised people must wait for a workers’ revolution in France before expecting real change.

Now in Algeria it seemed that the revolutionaries, and the masses that followed them, were not prepared to wait for anyone. Its war comprised of terror attacks on French settlers and strikes in the big towns. And it drew in thousands of Algerian workers and peasants, as well as newly radicalised sections of the middle classes. Fanon threw himself into the revolution.

By day he used his position in the hospital to hide Algerian fighters and to tend to those whose brains had been damaged by French torturers. By night he wrote passionately for the FLN and the anti-colonial struggle.

Eventually, when it became clear that the French were going to arrest him, Fanon fled the hospital and went on the run to Tunisia. There he was appointed as one of the editors of the FLN newspaper, El Moudjahid. He became an international ambassador for the movement. It was here, and in subsequent trips across Africa, that Fanon started to sketch out his thoughts on what were supposed to be “post-colonial” countries.

He admired those leaders who helped break the European Empires in Africa. But he was alarmed at what he described as “neocolonialism” and the “curse of independence”.

Fanon said that Africa’s new rulers were in danger of replicating the structures of colonialism and casting themselves as a new ruling class. He was particularly scathing about the new African bourgeoisie, which he described as a “profiteering caste” Not only did they line their own pockets with wealth illegally extracted from their countries, but wreaked revenge on the poor that revolted against them.

In this, Fanon was sounding a warning to the FLN of dangers awaiting them after they had driven the French from Algeria. And the subject weighed heavily on his last book, The Wretched of the Earth, written as leukaemia ravaged his still young body.

The book correctly analysed colonial violence, and rightly warned that post-colonial societies risked repeating features of capitalism. But it also reveals crucial weaknesses in Fanon’s thinking about how to win real liberation. In common with many other radicals at the time, Fanon broke with Marxism’s insistence that the working class was unique in its power to break capitalism—even when a minority in society.

Fanon said Marx was right about class in the economically developed world but that he was wrong about what was then called the Third World and today the Global South.

He wrote that in the Third World, “The proletariat is the nucleus of the colonised population which has been most pampered by the colonial regime. “The embryonic proletariat of the towns is in a comparatively privileged position.” But the peasantry was different.

He said, “It is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. “The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. “For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms—colonisation and decolonisation are simply a question of relative strength,” he wrote.

But Fanon’s vision of Africa was itself riddled with stereotypes of economic backwardness. In the years after Fanon’s death in 1961, Africa was alive with working class struggle.

In 1964 in Nigeria, for example, thousands of workers joined a general strike for a pay rise after MPs—perhaps the embodiment of Fanon’s “profiteering caste”—awarded themselves a big increase.

After 12 days of struggle, the parliamentarians gave in. Nigerian workers were to use the tactic repeatedly, with oil and dock workers soon on the front lines of the struggle. The example of Nigeria was followed by black workers in apartheid South Africa. Waves of mass strikes there shook the system so greatly that eventually, it was forced to seek peace with its opponents, and apartheid was dismantled.

Far from being “pampered” by the post-colonial regimes, workers were being exploited. And when they fought back they had the social weight to pull all the other oppressed and exploited behind them.

Their collective struggles in post-colonial Africa displayed a potential that frightened not only the corrupt African rulers Fanon despised but also the system that stood behind them.

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